Prague’s southern bypass opens amidst controversy

Photo: ČTK

There were the usual smiles and handshakes as President Vaclav Klaus, Prague Mayor Pavel Bém and other top officials cut the ribbon at the opening of a long-awaited new bypass on the south-western outskirts of Prague on Monday morning. But behind the scenes the mood was far less optimistic. Even before it officially opened the bypass, which links the D1 and D5 highways from Plzen to Brno, evoked plenty of controversy.

Photo: ČTK
The costliest construction project in the country’s history did not get off to a good start. A promised preview of the newly constructed road and tunnels to which the transport ministry invited the public on Saturday was badly botched. Thousands of people turned up but saw very little since much of the site was still closed off with workers finishing up in haste for the bypass to open to traffic on Monday.

However the wrath of the public was the least of the ministry’s problems. As Transport Minister Vít Bárta said at the opening ceremony on Monday, the planned opening of the 20 billion crown project was in serious jeopardy up until the last minute.

Vít Bárta and Václav Klaus,  photo: ČTK
“In the past few hours I have had to decide whether to open the southern bypass or not. An inspection of the work revealed three badly sealed joints in construction – which some consider to be a serious problem. I trust the opinion of experts at the Prague Technical University, who have assured me that these faults will have no impact on the structural integrity of the bridge. I also await impatiently the outcome of an independent study from the Technical University of Innsbruck.”

Although expert opinion is divided on the matter, the Transport Ministry says it is perfectly safe to open the 23 kilometer stretch of road. Deputy Transport Minister Radek Šmerda assured the public that the faulty joints would be under constant surveillance with tests conducted at regular intervals.

Photo: ČTK
“The bypass can safely be put into trial operation, and I emphasize the word trial. During this time it will be under constant surveillance and it is possible that other inadequacies may emerge, as happens with construction projects this size. Fresh tests will be conducted in a fortnight’s time, then again in another two weeks, and after that at regular intervals for the next five years. Moreover a special monitoring device will be put in place to alert us to any change in the badly sealed joints at any time in the future.”

Photo: ČTK
The newly-opened road will enable drivers travelling from one end of the country to the other to by-pass Prague. The city’s heavily congested southern highway is used by approximately 100,000 drivers a day. Prague City Hall is hoping that at least a third of them will now use the bypass instead. This should make life easier, particularly for lorry drivers on transit routes. However, haulage companies are none too happy about the fact that the authorities have lost no time levying a road toll on the new bypass.

Money was the operative word at Monday’s launch of the most costly road construction project ever undertaken in the Czech Republic and the mood was suitably low-spirited. Transport Minister Vít Bárta bemoaned the excessive cost of the bypass and in a symbolic gesture ordered that instead of champagne and canapés the officials present were to be offered lentils and water.