Politicians fiddle as Eternal City grinds to a halt

ROME DAYS: Public sector workers here spend more energy on football pools than on the job
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The Independent Online
All of a sudden, Rome is full of holes. In an uncharacteristic fit of reforming zeal, the city's telephone, gas, and electricity companies have come to the simultaneous conclusion that their underground pipes and cables are in urgent need of renewal, and the city council has seen fit to let them all start digging at once. The result is not so much chaos - the normal state of things around here, after all - as beyond chaos.

Piazza Venezia, the central hub of the whole city, has two holes in the middle and others along the edges. Via Nazionale, the main thoroughfare leading up to the station, has one enormous hole snarling up a major traffic junction and a couple of other medium-sized ones. Viale Trastevere, one of the main arteries leading south from the Tiber, is already a long succession of holes.

And, as if the shenanigans of the utility companies were not enough, traffic along the river has been brought to a standstill by an enormous hole being dug on one of the city's busiest bridges to lay down a new tramline.

Overall, there are so many holes that nobody has managed to make an accurate count of them, although rumour has it that the council is working up towards a grand total of 500. That means 500 extra traffic jams a day in a city already on the verge of an automotive breakdown. Not to mention 500 new things for the notoriously short-tempered Romans to lose their tempers about.

It is not a pretty sight. Usually, big Italian cities undertake repair work of this kind during the summer holidays, or else conduct it piecemeal so that it is barely noticed. Even Naples, usually the most anarchic metropolis in the land, is managing to build itself a new metro with minimal fuss above ground.

But the Roman authorities took the curious decision to start the work at the end of August, just when everyone - including, presumably, the work- men they intended to employ - was coming back from a month at the beach. Nothing like forcing Romans to return to work, and then making it almost impossible for them to get to their workplace, to create a really ugly mood.

The good news is that the holes were dug with commendable efficiency, bringing the city to a standstill in a matter of hours. The bad news, though, is that the workers were tired after their initial heroic labours and most of the holes have stayed open, forlorn and exposed, long beyond their due closing date.

"What we still want to know is: where have all the workers gone?" asked the Rome daily Il Messaggero for the umpteenth time this week. Ever since the holes appeared, the media and politicians have played a highly entertaining, but thoroughly vicious, game of cat-and- mouse.

One day, the municipality will admit a few lapses and announce a new, Stakhanovite timetable for the workers to refill the holes to; the next day, the papers will gleefully provide updates on the pathetic rate of progress and report how almost nobody was at their posts when they were supposed to be.

Admittedly, the city council has a near-impossible task. Romans are among the least grateful recipients of civic munificence in the world, and would probably complain if they were offered free pizza and a daily beer allowance. What's more, this is a place where orders from above are routinely disregarded and public-sector workers spend more energy on the football pools than they do on the job, so getting the holes filled on time was never going to be easy.

Last Thursday, the city's commissioner of public works, Esterino Montino, issued a damning report in which he complained of woefully undermanned and ill-equipped building sites. Alongside the presidential palace, he said, one repair team was reluctantly fil-ling in a hole "with a mechanical spade no bigger than a tablespoon".

The commissioner went to the city prefect, and the prefect told workers that if they didn't get their act together to meet the targets, working around the clock if necessary, they would be heavily fined.

New night-time work schedules were announced, and new deadlines fixed, including the closure of a series of holes by last weekend.

"I wouldn't bet a bottle of Coke that they'll do it," said the head of the city consumer association, Carlo Rienzi. And, sure enough, they didn't.

Only a handful of workers stayed up on Saturday night in Piazza Venezia, while in the rest of the city the holes remained as deserted as ever.

All of which makes the city shudder about the next four years, when it is supposed to be launching a veritable orgy of public works projects in preparation for the Vatican's millennial Jubilee.

We're talking a new metro, 50 new churches, buildings, community centres and tourist facilities. A Holy Year it will be, in more senses than one.