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Russia: Dreaming About Better Roads

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Citizen Media, Environment, Governance, Indigenous, RuNet Echo

This summer, on June 21, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev ordered [1] [ru] the government to auction a construction contract to build another 38 kilometers (23.6 miles) of a still-incomplete toll road between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. By signing the decree, Medvedev awakened a debate about the highway's negative environmental impact that only recently seemed to be subsiding.

Toll roads exist around big cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and are a regular feature of Russia's southern regions, where traffic jams are also a fixture of daily life. Responding to Medvedev's June initiative, some Russian Internet users agreed that the country needs an improved highways infrastructure, and they seem to be ready to pay for it. For instance, blogger nikitskij describes [2] [ru] his experience with toll roads in Saint Petersburg:

Ощущения были положительными — помимо ровного полотна дороги, в Санкт-Петербурге креативно подошли к оформления вдоль трассы, а оно было выше всех похвал. Т.е. было не только быстро, но и красиво!-)

My impressions were positive: in addition to the smooth road bed, the span of the highway was designed creatively in Saint Petersburg, really above all praise. That is to say, [the ride] was not only fast, but also beautiful! -)

Fandorin_k says “yes” [3] [ru] to toll roads, as well:

 Платные дороги нужны, лишь бы про альтернативный объезд не забывали и ремонтировали время от времени.

Toll roads are necessary, only we mustn't forget about alternative [freeway] routes, and repair them from time to time.

Highway construction through Khimki Forrest, Russia. 8 May 2011, photo by Daniel Beilinson, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The plans to build the new toll road [5] [ru] to connect Moscow and Petersburg belong to the Ministry of Transportation and date back to 2006. In November 2011, the Ministry estimated [6] [ru] that driving from Moscow to Petersburg on the new toll road, once it is completed, will cost motorists roughly 1,600 rubles ($49 or €39). In April 2012, the head of Avtodor [7] (The State Company Russian Highways), Sergei Kelbakh, put this figure even lower [8] [ru], approximating that a one-way trip will cost average drivers just 600 rubles ($19 or €15). (Kelbakh explains that nearly 40% of the highway will actually be a freeway without tolls of any kind.)

Amidst the various other estimates about the future costs of using the road, the Internet has proved to be a fertile rumor mill for inflated calculations [9] [ru] about toll levels. Thanks to such concerns and complementary worries about how the state will actually spend the highway's revenues, many bloggers have reacted with strong criticisms. LiveJournal user maydyk [10], for instance, contends that the highway represents “neofeudalism,” and he attacks the notion that privatization of public works projects delivers the promised benefits:

Платные участки ничем не отличаются от аналогичных бесплатных …

Turnpikes differ in no way from freeways …

According to blogger sapojnik [9]:

Нас, бессловесное быдло, просто заставят в собственной стране ездить по обычному шоссе ЗА ДЕНЬГИ – только и всего.

They are just going to force us, the dumb cattle, to drive in our own country on a regular road FOR MONEY — pure and simple.

In comments on his LJ, sapojnik also appealed [11] [ru] to Nikolai Gogol's classic hero Manilov [12], a character notorious for never acting on his many dreams:

Lj user gena_t jokes [13] [ru] that the citizens of Moscow and Petersburg are being punished for their political disobedience:

Показали свою нелояльность, походили с белыми ленточками – теперь получили. Потом еще хуже будет.

[They] showed their disloyalty: they marched with white ribbons. Now take this! Next it will be even worse.

The question of toll roads is an inevitable controversy in Russia. As the natives say, roads and fools [14] have always been the nation's biggest obstacles. The low quality of Russia's current highway infrastructure remains a kind of national shame [15]. The prospects for better roads, however, could improve, if Russia's millions of Manilovs can learn to replace dreams with action.