World

Italy opens probe into Autostrade per l’Italia over collapsed bridge as investors dump shares

Reuters

Italy’s government opened an investigation on Thursday into the country’s biggest toll-road operator, hours after saying it could face a heavy fine or lose its concession over a bridge collapse that killed at least 38 people.

A section of the bridge gave way on Tuesday during busy lunchtime traffic, plunging dozens of vehicles 50 meters (160 feet) below and engulfing Autostrade per l’Italia in a political fire storm.

Launching its investigation late on Thursday, the Transport Ministry said it had given Autostrade 15 days to show it had met all its contractual obligations, adding it wanted the company to rebuild the bridge at its own expense.

If the justifications provided by the company were judged inadequate, Rome would consider it a breach of the concession terms.

Earlier, Deputy Transport Minister Edoardo said Autostrade, owned by Italy’s Benetton family, could lose its concession as it had failed to ensure the viaduct’s safety.

“The options we’re looking at are the full revocation, the revocation of just the A10 section or a penalty, but a €150 million ($170 million) penalty is too low,” Rixi said.

Under the terms of the concession Autostrade can be fined up to €150 million.

A government source separately suggested Italy may impose a fine rather than withdraw Autostrade’s concession as the latter could involve a long legal fight and risk the government being ordered to pay compensation to the company.

Autostrade says it made regular, thorough safety checks on the 1.2 km-long viaduct, part of a highway linking the port city of Genoa with southern France, and had used world-leading experts when conducting the tests and inspections.

Autostrade will hold an extraordinary board meeting on the crisis next week, a source close to the matter said.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the reasons behind the bridge collapse, but have yet to publicly identify the cause.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has declared a state of emergency for Genoa, one of Italy’s busiest ports, whose main land corridor with France has effectively been severed.

In the valley below the shattered structure, cranes moved away chunks of debris on Thursday as rescue teams searched for survivors under the rubble of a bridge completed in 1967 and overhauled just two years ago.

Genoa’s chief prosecutor, Francesco Cozzi, said 10 to 20 people were still missing.

A state funeral for the victims will take place in Genoa on Saturday, officials said, as the coffins of some of the dead were laid out in a hospital chapel.

One man stood in silence with his hands on the coffin in front of him. Other relatives were comforted by family members as they wiped away their tears.

Italy’s ruling coalition has threatened to break EU budget rules if need be to repair infrastructure and ensure there’s no repeat of the disaster.

A spokesman for the executive European Commission rebuffed any suggestion EU spending rules were crimping action by Italy, saying Rome was getting €2.5 billion from EU coffers for investments in network infrastructure in 2014-2020.

Bonds issued by Atlantia and its Autostrade per l’Italia unit have fallen sharply since Tuesday and now trade at record lows. A document detailing the terms for €3.2 billion worth of bonds guaranteed by Autostrade show that an early termination of the highway concession would give bondholders a right to demand an early repayment.