Western cabbies may talk to visitors about the weather — Russian cabbies talk about roads. In fact, they first ask foreigners what they think about Russia, immediately followed by the question “and what do you think about our Russian roads?” Russian roads have rated very high on the list of popular grievances for decades. Goldman Sachs ranks the quality of Russia’s roads 130th out of 142 surveyed countries. A June 2011 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation found that two-thirds of Russians consider the state of their roads “bad.” Nine out of 10 Russians responded that the roads they took daily were in need of serious repairs.

Russia is certainly not alone in such challenges. Americans remember well the collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, which killed 13 drivers during rush hour traffic. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that investments of $2.2 trillion are needed in the next five years to address the U.S.’ rapidly deteriorating infrastructure. President Obama has prioritized spending federal funds on infrastructure projects to maintain economic competitiveness and create jobs. He went on a roadshow after his last State of the Union address to promote his infrastructure and jobs agenda. Just last week, reacting to disappointing employment numbers, the president urged Congress to pass a $447 billion stimulus package that would include large scale investments in U.S. infrastructure. Partisan struggles over the national debt and the upcoming elections have more or less gridlocked that agenda for the time being.

The U.S. case illustrates the enormous costs involved in maintaining transportation networks for billions of cars and trucks on which our modern lifestyles and global economies depend. European nations, stuck in debt crises, are experiencing similar problems. Unlike the West, Russia is not troubled by debt but faces transportation problems on a much larger scale. Russia is the biggest country in the world in terms of area and one of the least densely populated. The modernization of the nation is a mantra of all political forces in Russia, though it has yet to be realized. In spite of a decade of oil- and gas-fueled economic growth, Russian cabbies still mock the roads on which they earn a living. Without modern transportation, Russia will have trouble fulfilling its ambition of belonging to an elite group of countries driving international economic growth.

In a recent report, the Russian Ministry of Transport estimated the economic loss due to poor roads in Russia at 7 to 9 percent of GDP. The average distance that commercial goods can travel within one day in Russia is 180 miles — compared with 900 in Europe. The percentage of transportation in the overall costs of Russian products would drop from 20 to 13 if average speeds could be raised to European levels, the ministry estimates.

Russia has never been known for good roads. Soviet power, particularly under Stalin and his successors, did much to pave roads and ensure year-round mobility, at least in the central parts of the country. In 2008, 468,500 miles of roads in Russia were paved, which is a bit more than one-tenth of the 4.2 million miles of paved road in the U.S. Still, 10 percent of Russians get cut off from the rest of the nation for days or even weeks every year. In the more distant provinces, road density and quality drop off significantly, which also affects the viability of transporting goods across the country.

Harsh climatic conditions, insufficient state investments and widespread corruption have ensured that the challenges facing Russia remain formidable. Every fall and spring, strong rains bring about a condition called rasputitsa, approximately translated as “roadlessness.” For centuries, Russia’s public and economic life would come to a standstill at least twice a year, when wide swaths of the country became impassable because unpaved roads turned into swamps. Rasputitsa, known also as “General Mud,” contributed as much to the defeat of Russia’s invaders as the nation’s military did. Both Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies got bogged down in the mud, were unable to supply themselves or maneuver in spite of their technological superiority and suffered crushing defeats.

These days, not even the main highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg is outfitted to carry heavy trucks. Moreover, Russian roads are more congested than anywhere in the West — not surprising if one considers the fact that the number of cars in Russia has doubled in the last 10 years, but the number of roads has remained constant. In the privileged metropolis of Moscow, the city’s essentially good transportation infrastructure is reaching the limits of its capacity. The traffic problems of the Russian capital are thus comparable with cities like Los Angeles. In both places, drivers spend hours on their commute to work.

In a provincial industrial center like Tula, however, traffic problems have more to do with the terrible state of urban roads. Even in the city center, the streets are dotted with potholes. Rush hour traffic comes to a grinding halt at many intersections because drivers need to circle around large and deep craters. Frequent accidents result from this dangerous slalom, and cyclists and pedestrians live very dangerously. In 2011, 27,953 Russians died in car crashes, an increase of more than a thousand people compared with 2010, according to the Russian Ministry of the Interior. On American roads, 32,885 people died in 2010. However, the number of Russian drivers is just a fraction of the estimated 202 million to 240 million in the U.S.In recent years, recognizing the economic and political significance of its transportation problems, the Russian government has stepped up its efforts to increase the quality and security of the nation’s roads. It passed a zero tolerance policy on alcohol behind the wheel, and heavy fines deter Russians from drunk driving. From 2010 to 2011, the number of accidents drunk drivers caused thus decreased by 5 percent. Federal and regional governments more than doubled available infrastructure funds from 2011 to 2012, from $11.5 billion to $24 billion. Before 2018, the Ministry of Economic Development plans a further doubling.

Nonetheless, many analysts doubt whether this sum will be enough to keep up with demand. The number of cars on Russia’s roads has always risen faster than state expenditures, and investments measured against the GDP remain small. Although most European countries invest about 4 percent in their transportation infrastructure, Russia spends four times less than that. The U.S. also trails Europe in this regard, spending roughly 2.4 percent in 2011.

Much more serious, however, is the fact that one mile of road is more expensive in Russia than in Western countries. Harsh winters certainly play a role in driving up maintenance costs. Still, experts from the Moscow State Automobile and Road Technical University estimate that 70 percent of investments in road projects are lost due to corruption. Particularly problematic is the monopolization of regional markets for road construction by oligarchies. “Naturally, local companies pay politicians for road construction contracts — a lucrative business for everyone involved,” says Vasilii Il’ich, a local businessman in Tula. However, he notes that an increasing number of national road construction companies in Russia successfully compete in formally open public tenders and refuse to pay bribes.

The results of less corruption are obvious: On our ride through downtown Tula, we drove through a section that has recently been rebuilt, some of it on city, the rest on federal territory. The former was built by a local company, the latter by a national one. The first 600 yards were a veritable obstacle course through potholes; the second section was quite smooth. “The first company stole a lot of money, the second one only a bit,” Il’ich says with a laugh. Russia is thus on its way to solving at least some of its transportation problems. The solutions, however, are not always convincing: When the government had to admit last year that only a quarter of Russian roads met federal standards, it alleviated the situation in character — it lowered the standards. Now, larger and deeper potholes are allowed on Russia’s streets without violating any norms.

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