Interview. We spoke with Marco Ponti, the economist whose cost-benefit analysis of Turin-Lyon high-speed rail project, known as the TAV, showed it to be of limited usefulness and high cost. ‘A cultural and ethical principle of transparency in decision-making is being trampled.’

Will Italy go ahead with a ‘mini-TAV’ rail project?

On July 12, vice-prime minister Luigi Di Maio will be in Turin, a stop on his Italian tour, to discuss the transformation of the M5S and of the TAV. One way to move forward could be the so-called “mini TAV,” a project involving a tunnel as an alternative to the current one. Such a project would pass the test of the cost-benefit analysis, which has been much discussed over the past months.

Professor Ponti, people are talking about the “mini TAV” now: what do you think about it?

People have been discussing many possible TAV variants over the years, “TAV light” or “mini TAV.” I can recall a dozen of them, but this particular project is new to me. I will not hazard a judgment about it, since I don’t know enough about it, but I will mention the criticisms made by Engineer Alberto Poggio [of the Technical Commission of the Municipality of Turin], who I think is a good technical specialist. Given that we are debating various perspectives for a realistic “TAV light,” one solution might be to build only one railway track, thus placating both sides. Then, on the basis of traffic flows, it would be decided whether to build the second rail line. This solution would lead to radical cost cutting.

But even in the case of such a “mini TAV,” it would be necessary to start from scratch. 

I can say that up to now, we have spent just 11% of the final amount that would be invested in this project. If we can save on the overall costs, it would be fine even to start again from almost zero.

Professor Ponti, has your cost-benefit analysis proven in black and white that the TAV is a useless project?

The study that we have put together shows that there is very little traffic on the Turin-Lyon corridor, which leads to strong doubts about its usefulness. Not only when considering the railway, but also the highway: the trade in goods between the two regions is modest, and on a downward trend. It’s the same regarding passenger transit solutions, which are suffering, and will suffer even more, due to the competition from low-cost flights.

That should be the foundation on which to make a political decision.

The world of politics has already signed an international agreement, which is a constraint. But the problem remains that these projects are all done with the taxpayers’ money, and thus the resources of the community, while those who will benefit don’t contribute even one cent, and this leaves us perplexed. Zero percent: let’s talk about that, since the Italian public finances are not thriving, and nobody is talking about the problem that the end users, even the industrial ones, do not want to pay for the rail infrastructure. At this rate, we are on a high-speed track to becoming Greece.

How is your relationship with Minister Toninelli?

I have almost no relationship with the minister anymore, since he decided to give the green light for the works. Some small parts that are too expensive might end up being stopped, but the bulk will go ahead. It’s the same for the TAV as for the Tortona-Genova high speed railway. But it applies even more to the railways in the South, which will remain unused. The problem is that the French have already said that they don’t care about the Turin-Lyon connection, and they did so officially. They acted accordingly as well, as they will not allocate even one euro for the stretch between the tunnel and Lyon until 2038.

Has the principle that great public works should be done only when they are actually useful become obsolete?

It seems that nobody agrees anymore with the principle that mega-infrastructure should only be built if it makes sense. We will see more of this over the next 10 years, for instance with the Milan-Turin high-speed line.

Would I be wrong if I said that this government has finally and definitively buried cost-benefit analysis as a decision-making tool?

You would be clearly wrong: this government has merely shown itself to be just like the previous one in this respect. We worked with Minister Delrio, who once said that “everything will be analyzed”—but when Renzi took over, this turned into “nothing will be analyzed.” This government has done the same: it has not been able to withstand the economic pressures and the pressure to get electoral support, and it has folded on everything. We, the technical experts, recognize the primacy of politics, but in this way, a cultural and ethical principle of transparency in decision-making is being trampled. The ones who are winning out are the invincible powers-that-be. Invincible. Because no one is held to account for wasting resources in a very difficult economic environment.

So, will our grandchildren see the TAV crossing the Susa Valley?

Politics will decide, and it follows a different logic than ours. In any case, we can say that our grandchildren “will pay a high price, will pay for all of it.” [Ponti here paraphrases a left-wing anti-fascist slogan from the times of the violent street clashes in the ‘70s.]

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