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Bridge collapse prompts political blame game

FOUR deaths and 12 injuries resulted from the collapse of a highway bridge under construction between Kurimany and Iliašovce, both located in Levoča district, on November 2. Initial findings by investigators suggested that the tragedy had been caused by a weak support frame, the Sme daily reported on November 5.

FOUR deaths and 12 injuries resulted from the collapse of a highway bridge under construction between Kurimany and Iliašovce, both located in Levoča district, on November 2. Initial findings by investigators suggested that the tragedy had been caused by a weak support frame, the Sme daily reported on November 5.

“This is unacceptable,” said Transport Minister Ján Počiatek, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “The investigation will be thorough, and we will find out who made a mistake and when.”

The collapse has since led to a discussion over the effect that very low procurement bids have on the quality of construction projects. While politicians have started to blame each other over the lack of supervision of the bridge’s construction, experts said they would wait for the final analysis of the investigation and then focus on measures that might prevent similar tragedies from occurring.

Two independent teams are currently investigating the accident. Experts will examine the remains of the bridge frame as soon as the debris is removed from the site. They will then simulate the collapse on a computer.

The investigators should receive the necessary documentation in two weeks, while the results of the investigation could be revealed in a month, Sme wrote.

The collapsed bridge is part of the cross-country D1 highway section between Jánovce and Jablonov which was being constructed by a consortium of two companies: Slovak Váhostav-SK and Czech Bögl & Krýsl. The section of highway includes five bridges. The collapsed bridge was the only one built in cooperation with a subcontractor, the Slovak company Semos. The collapsed frame was supplied by German company Skruže Weise.

After the tragedy the National Highway Company (NDS), which ordered construction of the highway section and was responsible for supervising the project, banned the use of steel bridge support frames of this kind supplied by Weise on all construction sites for which they had been ordered, while the Transport Ministry later issued an across-the-board ban on their use in Slovakia, TASR wrote.

Moreover the ministry has stopped all work on this section of the highway until the end of the investigation.

Dispute over responsibility

Počiatek said at a press conference held on November 5 that Bögl & Krýsl is fully responsible for the collapse of the bridge. He added that the ministry will inspect other construction activities of the company in Slovakia, the SITA newswire reported.

However, former transport minister Ján Figeľ says that the construction firm should not bear sole responsibility for the tragedy. He said that the contractors used a different type of central component for the support frame from what was established in the tender. He explained that security conditions are clearly defined for all construction projects, and that the contractor cannot make any changes without the consent of the NDS. He added that under previous management the NDS has not approved any such changes.

“Moreover, since it is a project financed by EU structural funds, such a change would have to be approved by the EC as well in order to use the funds,” Figeľ told The Slovak Spectator.
He also said that the information that appeared in the media points to the “significant failure of supervision by the NDS", which is 100-percent owned by the Transport Ministry.

“The supervisor can stop the construction any time if he learns about violations of security conditions,” Figeľ explained.

The current management of the transport ministry responded that Figeľ’s statements only prove his incompetence if he does not know about the details of the tender since the type of frame used was, in fact, included in the project documentation, SITA wrote.

Meanwhile, Bögl & Krýsl released a statement saying it objects to statements being made by experts and laymen alike, including Slovak politicians, who are blaming the company for the collapse of the bridge even before the debris is cleared, TASR reported.
“These ill-advised statements significantly damage the credibility and professional reputation of the company, not only in the eyes of the public but also its business partners,” the company said, as quoted by TASR. “Also, they do not bolster the trustworthiness of those who state them without any factual knowledge.”

It would not comment on the accident or the course of the investigation, but stressed that it had been cooperating with the investigation from the very beginning.

Construction quality questioned

The accident has spurred a discussion over how the quality of public procurement projects is affected by the low cost of orders. According to former NDS head Ján Kotuľa, the accident had nothing to do with the low price of the highway.

“This is completely unrelated. No price was involved in the static calculation,” he said, as quoted by TASR.

Ľubomír Palčák from the Transport Research Institute says, however, that companies themselves claim they often have to decrease their bids for orders since demand outweighs actual offers.

A survey conducted by Czech firm CEEC Research confirms that the bad situation on the market has had an impact on construction companies. Up to 42 percent of respondents claimed they have to decrease their final bid in order to stay competitive among other bidders and win the tender, SITA wrote.

Yet, Palčák stresses that in some types of orders, including highways, such practices “cannot be tolerated for long”. Even if a low price does not cover a firm’s costs for qualified experts or quality construction materials, the company that signs an agreement with a procurer has to take responsibility for its work.

“[…] on one hand, transparent public competition has to generate the most economically useful price, which is not always the same as the lowest price, but on the other hand, there should be a strong emphasis on quality and security,” Palčák told The Slovak Spectator.

He stressed that although politicians affect both the market and the final bids which companies offer, they are not the only ones that should be blamed for construction accidents, since it is the companies that offer the final bid.

Legislation will be changed

The collapse of the bridge near Kurimany and Iliašovce was not the only accident involving Bögl & Krýsl. The firm is facing prosecution in the Czech Republic for the collapse of a bridge in the town of Studénka that occurred in 2008, which resulted in the deaths of eight people, SITA wrote.

In order to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring, the Transport and Interior Ministries presented several changes to the public procurement law. One of the planned measures is to prohibit the use of companies that failed to complete construction projects in the past, Kaliňák said in the political talk show Sobotné Dialógy broadcast by Slovak Radio.

Moreover, the Transport Ministry stresses that firms which lack the capacity to complete construction projects should not be allowed to bid on them, but that the current law on public procurements enables them to. One such problem is the change to the conditions for requirement of references, which allows firms with less experience to participate in bids for important constructions, Transport Ministry spokesperson Martin Kóňa told The Slovak Spectator.

“Therefore we want to enforce stricter rules for the references of bidders, so that they must supply references which [we will] use to judge whether they have the required expert and technical capabilities to build such work,” Kóňa added.

This means that the ministry will check to see whether the bidders have enough experience with similar construction projects, and that they own the technology necessary for completing the order and have their own employees who are capable of working on the construction, the spokesperson explained.

In addition, since one of the firms involved with the construction of the collapsed bridge contributed little to the construction other than supplying subcontractors, the Transport Ministry wants firms that win such tenders to actually contribute to a project’s construction, and not simply contract the whole thing out to other companies.

“Our aim [with the changes] is to allow the procuring of quality constructions for an appropriate price,” Kóňa added.

Palčák agrees that the current law does allow firms without references to participate in procurement bids. According to him, a company might even buy a reference from a foreign company and, even though it lacks the experience, might participate in the tender and win the order. In order to prevent such situations the government should define in the law that “only the references from the companies in the consortium [of firms working on the project] will be taken into account”, he told The Slovak Spectator.

Moreover, Palčák says that the government should change its practice of accepting the lowest bid, which can allow potentially unqualified companies to win the tender, and instead accept only the most economically useful price, which would factor all the expenses for maintenance of the construction.

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