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Transportation

Bumpy ride for Latvia's pothole protestors

Potholes are the bane of drivers the world over. But Latvians have particular grounds for grievance. By worldwide standards, their paved roads are nearly in the bottom third - and the culprit, some claim, is corruption.

Some 50 people cheer as they stage a peaceful protest outside a government building in Riga. The demonstrators have arrived from Vecpiebalga, a village with just 500 inhabitants in the eastern region of the country.

(Photo: Gederts Gelzis für DW)

Locmelis and his daughter are part-time pothole protestors

Almost all the slogans on the posters include the Latvian word for "pothole." The potholes in question, not surprisingly, are on the main road leading from their hometown of Vecpiebalga to the country's capital.

"The roadway poses a threat to people today, tonight and tomorrow, and it will continue to do so until road repairs are carried out," said 37-year-old lawyer Marcis Locmelis, who organized the protest in early April. He told DW that the potholed road hadn't been repaired for almost 30 years.

"We are calling for a state of emergency to be declared in the district because this threat must be averted without delay," he said. "The government must apply technology to solve this problem, and it must find the political will to do something for local residents."

By helicopter?

While Locmelis launched the online campaign, it was his ten-year-old daughter, Loreta, who really got the wheels turning. In March 2013 she sent a letter to Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis asking him to fix the awful road which her family has to use every day. Loreta says that she advised the politician to spare his car and to visit the village by helicopter.

"I was going on the bus to a Latvian language competition in a nearby village when the bus hit a pothole or a bump in the road," the 10-year-old told DW. "The bus jumped about terribly - I fell out of my seat and bruised myself. There's also a pothole on the way to music school. I have to fasten the seatbelt and hold on tight, because otherwise I might fall out of my seat."

The regional road connecting the cities of Cesis and Madona and cutting through Vecpiebalga is indeed in dire condition. According to the local municipality, more than 20 car accidents have occurred during the last seven months, resulting in six injuries.

Shabby streets have a strong effect on the rural population, which accounts for about 50 percent of Latvia's 2.2 million people. In the EU's third poorest member state, many roads are in need of urgent reconstruction.

(Photo: Gederts Gelzis für DW)

Residents of Vecpiebalga are understandably worried about the safety of their loved ones on Latvia's roads

'A mob of men'

"We're interested to see that people are now stepping up demand for high quality roads - and keeping up the pressure on our politicians," said Janis Lange of Latvian State Roads, a privately held Latvian company. "I hope that sends them a message that roads are our priority, and that they need to find a sustainable way of funding motorways."

Lange told DW that the situation in Vecpiebalga is not unique, since roughly two thousand kilometers of regional roads need to be repaired throughout the country. The government, he feels, should reinstate a special road fund which was stopped nearly ten years ago. Otherwise, he feels, roads will continue to deteriorate.

But for television journalist Paul Timrots, whose recent projects have dealt with the issue of road safety in Latvia, the problem has less to do with funding and more to do with the "special" relationship between construction companies and public officials.

(Photo: Gederts Gelzis für DW)

Could foreign contractors do better work?

"Basically, there's a mob of men who've graduated from a technical university more or less at the same time," Timrots told DW. "They share competitions for road construction contracts among themselves, and they also carry out inspections. They're in close contact with each other and that's why there will never be a good result."

Filling holes

At the moment, companies in neighboring Estonia and Lithuania are not allowed to bid for Latvian road contracts. That, Timrots believes, should change.

Janis Lange maintains, however, that the real problem is simply one of insufficient funding. This year's road budget is close to 160 million lats (228 million euros), or just half of the sum needed, he says.

EU funding is also available, but it requires matching funds from the Latvian government. Until Latvia increases its own funding of roads, EU funds will remain stagnant.

(Photo: Gederts Gelzis für DW)

While the ride home was rough, the 50 or so protestors succeeded in speeding up the repair of their roads

In the meantime, Latvian State Roads is about to start patching up the road in Vecpiebalga. The company initially planned to start full reconstruction of the road in 2015, but because of the protest, the company has now pledged to repair the road within the year.

For Marcis Locmelis and his daughter Loreta, who are forced to maneuver between the deep potholes every day, those repairs can't come soon enough.