Spending Cuts Plunge Spanish Highways Into Darkness

Photograph by David Sawyer

Cars went barreling along the highway in darkness, ferrying families from Madrid to the beaches of Catalonia during the Easter holiday season, the black stalks of unlit streetlamps flicking past their windows. Truck drivers honked angrily as motorists switched on their full beams to pick out curves in the road, momentarily dazzling oncoming traffic.

Motorists traveling along the main highway linking the Spanish capital to Seville and the rest of the south face similar challenges. “In some stretches it looks like they’ve been switching off the lights, in others they are missing the bulbs or the cables,” says Pascual Cabello, 32, who runs a fleet of eight trucks. “It’s only going to get worse,” he adds.

The most draconian spending cuts on record are plunging Spain’s cities and highways into darkness as ministries and mayors struggle to pay for basic services. To appease European officials and bond investors, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to pare the country’s deficit by 27 billion euros ($35 billion), an amount equivalent to almost a third of central government spending in 2011. At the same time, Rajoy is battling Spain’s second recession since 2009. Unemployment has edged up to 24 percent, pushing up social security payments and damping tax revenue.

Public lighting is one of the more visible casualties of the hard times.

More than half the highways in Spain that have lighting installed have either had it switched off or are inadequately illuminated, according to a report by the Spanish Highways Association, a lobby group backed by construction firms, released last month. A spokeswoman at Spain’s Public Works Ministry, who asked not to be identified by name, said the government had no obligation to light highways, except for tunnels, and that the blackouts are part of a plan to boost energy efficiency.

The Spanish government increased annual public investment in transport infrastructure by 104 percent from 2000 to 2010, the second-largest increase among the 11 original members of the euro zone, according to the European Union’s statistical agency. It added 5,200 kilometers of highway and built high-speed rail lines to Barcelona, Valencia, and Malaga. “We had lots of aid from EU funds and created a very fast, very short-term growth model without thinking about what would happen when the taps were turned off,” says Jacobo Díaz Pineda, managing director of the highways association. “Now we can’t afford to pay the upkeep of what we’ve built.”

The report from the highways association estimates that the government needs to invest a further 5.5 billion euros to bring roadways up to scratch—outlays that most likely will be deferred until the economy stages a comeback.

At the same time, Spain’s authorities are fighting a surge in thefts of copper power cables that have knocked out lighting in some areas. In April, the Guardia Civil, the equivalent of the U.S. National Guard, conducted raids on 20 scrap metal merchants in Cadiz, a city in the southwest of the country. The crackdown netted 120 tons of mainly copper metal as well as a 200-year-old cannon dating from Spain’s war of independence from France. The 12 persons arrested were part of a gang that over the past two years has been stealing copper cable from the lampposts lining the Madrid-to-Seville highway, the Guardia Civil said.

Professional drivers say that the reduced visibility, along with deterioration in the asphalt as maintenance budgets are cut, risks reversing improvements in road safety that slashed the number of road deaths by 64 percent over the past decade. Traffic accidents killed 107 people in April, which is 4 percent more than the same month a year ago, and the first increase in 13 months. “When you go at night with only the lights of your vehicle, it’s just not the same as looking 500 meters ahead with streetlamps,” says Felix Tijero, 52, who runs a business transporting heavy machinery for construction. “The difference is dramatic.”

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