By Angelos Anastasiou
THE IDEA of building a four-lane motorway connecting Paphos with Polis Chrysochous should be scrapped in favour of a modern two-lane road that will meet the standards of the Public Works Department, Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides has told the Sunday Mail.
Following a week of bickering with the entire political establishment, ostensibly over a cabinet decision to include the construction of the road in the 2018 government budget but really over the existential question of who gets to make executive decisions and whether these can be pre-emptively audited, Michaelides found himself in the cross-hairs of the area’s residents, organised groups and even his long-time de facto ally, in the fight against corruption, Paphos mayor Phedonas Phedonos.
It seemed to most that the auditor-general was in some way opposed to building a new road connecting the western-most corner of the island with its nearest urban area (the old one being a meandering, narrow, poorly-lit wreck of a road, deemed “unquestionably unsafe” by the Cyprus technical chamber); but this was just how it played out in the media.
“We are not against building a new road,” Michaelides said right off the bat.
“We are in favour of a solution befitting the area’s characteristics. A modern, two-lane, Class-A road, according to the Public Works Department’s specifications for roads with the traffic levels seen in the area.”
A class-A road, he added, is the best type of road that can be justified given the region’s traffic levels, and can facilitate average daily traffic of 13,000 cars.
The existing road, Michaelides had said in a statement earlier this week, boasted in 2014 a daily average of 6,800 cars, whereas the minimum standard for a four-lane road is 41,000 vehicles daily.
“Anything over and above this [a Class-A two-lane road] would constitute squandering of public money,” he said.
Phedonos, one of the many who spoke out against the auditor-general’s view, suggested the issue is a kind of chicken-and-egg paradox.
“The new road is going to facilitate an explosion of development in the Polis bay,” he told the Mail.
“You can reasonably expect to see traffic levels move up dramatically within a few years, and then you’re going to need the motorway – but for that to happen, you need the new road first, because no businessman is going to build a large hotel in the area if the existing road can’t support increased traffic.”
Hence, the mayor added, the new road should, at the very least, be compatible with motorway standards, even if it is only a two-laner at first.
“I understand [Michaelides’] argument, I see where he’s coming from,” he said.
“But the raw potential for development after the road has been built is undeniable, and maybe the government should have prepared a study to quantify that.”
The saga of the new Paphos-Polis road was officially started in 1994, when the government first decided to start planning a four-lane motorway, but even then the obstacles had been obvious.
Four years later, an environmental impact study concluded that, at an estimated cost of 73 million Cyprus pounds, the project had been economically unviable and recommended instead the improvement of the existing road.
Predictably, this sparked reactions from residents and organised groups, resulting, as such things often do, in a political flip-flop: by 1999, the four-lane road was back on the table.
Subsequent additions to the original planning saw the envisioned motorway boasting nine two-level stacked roundabouts, seven concrete bridges and two tunnels, and according to a 2005 estimate, the total cost had shot up to €250 million.
It was at this time that the Audit Service – then under Chrystalla Georghadji – started raising red flags.
In its 2005 annual report, and for the next seven in a row, the service kept pointing out that the planned motorway was an unviable project and that its cost should be slashed drastically before any thoughts of going ahead with it could be seriously entertained.
To no avail; tenders were invited in 2007 for the construction of the originally-planned motorway, and successive talks with the two top bidders were started.
But the talks fell through after each bidder demanded more favourable clauses in the contract and by 2011 the project was once again dead in the water.
At this point, and in a rapidly worsening economy, the government must have realised that the original plans were a no-go, and went back to the drawing board with a view to reducing the cost by scrapping many of the original frills.
But this wasn’t enough, and a middle-ground idea was floated and eventually adopted: the four-lane motorway was still the idea, but it would be constructed in two phases, at first as a two-lane road that would, at some unspecified point in the future, serve as one-half of the four-lane motorway.
The first part of the plan was budgeted at €115 million and the second at €70 million, while around €60 million had already been spent in land expropriations, with €60 million more needed.
A few months and one government-transition later, all this seemed a distant memory. The March 2013 Eurogroup decisions pushed government infrastructure spending way to the back of the line and, crucially, a year later ushered in a Troika-demanded law on fiscal responsibility, which stipulated that decisions on taxpayer-funded capital investment must be based on cost-benefit analyses and hard data, not obscure political expediency.
This is the law Michaelides cited in his statement, arguing that it placed the onus on Finance Minister Harris Georgiades to reject the project as “economically unviable”.
“This project has a negative recommendation from the Transport Ministry as late as February this year,” Michaelides said.
It is not often that Cyprus’ political system comes together with a single voice, but this was one of those rare times. All parties came out against the auditor-general and in favour of the proposed road.
Their main argument was that Michaelides should butt out of the entire affair as it is a purely political decision – except it’s not, at least according to the 2014 law.
“When an institution like the auditor-general makes such an intervention, the first and foremost task at hand is whether the intervention is reasonable and serves the public – and the taxpayer’s – interest,” the technical chamber said, weighing into the ongoing row.
“Turf wars are secondary and out of place, unless the primary issue has been exhausted. Therefore, a remit-focused approach adds nothing to public discourse, instead corrupting the public’s culture in matters of compliance with the law and eroding its trust to government institutions.”