Elderly engineers find funds falling to wayside

Kurna-Luige neljarajalise tee ehitus käis eile täie hooga, põrkepiirded tulevad seal ka metsavahelistesse teeservadesse.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

A 1.8 kilometre section of Tallinn Roundabout has guardrails planned which, according to experts, are not just unnecessary but outright dangerous.

Vaabo Annus and Meeme Loik are long-time highway engineers. Pensioners, they earn a little extra by ensuring that construction companies build decent roads and not mess up. In this case, the men feature as troubled citizens – speaking up as owner supervisors i.e. representatives of Estonian state would cost them their jobs.

On the Tallinn Roundabout, the new four-line Kurna-Luige section is being built. As assessed by the troubled citizens, at least a couple of hundred thousand euros might be economised, and what’s most important – safety of the section would considerably be improved. The men are acquainted with details of the project design, and are daily busy in the Kurna and Luige neighbourhood.

The Tallinn Roundabout has exceedingly heavy traffic, about 8,000 cars every 24 hours, many of these large trucks. While driving down a road with two lines both ways, and your vehicle starts losing control, would you prefer driving off the road – or, thanks to the border bars, to remain on the road where it’s highly likely some large wheels hit you in the back?

With passenger paths lining a road, or noise barriers with people living behind them, roadside crash barriers are elementary. Crash barriers do exist in the middle of four-lane roads; also, these are used at roadsides at on-ramps and off-ramps, steeper curves, and at roads located high up. 

To any ole road in the midst of woods, a guardrail is set when road surface is higher than three metres – in that case, driving off the road may be more dangerous than other options.

At the Luige-Kurna section, the rails are planned for the entire 1.8 kilometre length of it, no matter that the section is only 1.5 metres higher than the surroundings, on average. So, in case of accidents, many would prefer to fly off the road, rather than be overrun by a vehicle coming from behind.

Already, public procurements are underway for the next and much longer section of the Tallinn Roundabout. Thither, full-length guardrails have been planned as well.

Mr Annus and Mr Loik cannot comprehend why the rails, in the middle of fields and woods, cut down far enough from the roadsides. «On account of the unnecessary guardrails alone, some €248,000 might be saved,» reckons Mr Annus. «The rail is steel, it’s imported.» According to Road Administration’s own data, a metre of guardrails last year cost €19 to €40.

In their work as highway engineers, the men have beholden the Soviet era Potemkinism, the penny-pinching after the regained independence, and the mindless splashing of EU money. Never in history have we had so much cash to build roads. That, however, will make the road-planning officialdom feel «why count the master’s euros».

Mr Annus has been into road construction supervision for 14 long years. In his opinion, especially after Estonia joined the European Union, too many deep ditches have been dug in the land. «As the initial euro-roads came, and I beheld the ditches planned into the dry sand, I just deleted these at some sections.» Ditches, you see, are supposed to protect the road’s humidity regime; with surface water deep, such dangerous deep ditches are often unnecessary.

Even the four-lane roads renovated latterly, in the straight and forest sections, there aren’t any guardrails. Like at the renewed parts of Tallinn-Narva highway. Thus, the Luige-Kurna section is an exception. Mr Annus claims to know how the rails entered the plan.

Road slopes can be planned gentler or steeper. The steeper ones are planned when a road is over 3 metres higher than the area around it, for instance. Then, rails will come.

In the project we’re talking about here, as assessed by Mr Annus the rails came as the designer and a couple of officials interpreted the instructions wrong, never noticing that the Luige-Kurna section is at 1.5 metre height, on average. At times, it’s flat with the surrounding surface. Mr Annus would prefer to cancel the rails and opt for the gentle slope.

Now, someone may ask if the gentler slope would not prove more expensive, needing more material. As pointed out by Mr Annus, there’d not be much difference, as 1 metre shoulders are planned to either side, behind the rails, anyway. Without the rails, the road would be by two metres narrower – on account of that, the slopes could be gentled out.

Guardrails aren’t the only issue troubling the two elderly men. Also, they are disturbed by the oversized beast-tunnel. Mr Annus takes me to see the tunnel under Tallinn-Tartu highway, of 1.2 metre diameter. As betrayed by spoor, creatures are using the option. Mr Annus is an old hunter; to his knowledge, animal tunnels are for raccoons, foxes, for frogs also in the springtime. A rabbit and a deer will never venture there.

To the Luige-Kurna section, however, an animal tunnel 1.7 m high and 2.4 wide is planned. Also, it crosses underneath the four-line road diagonally, as the ditch at the side does the same. According to Mr Annus, €40,000 could be saved here as well, building a prudent-sixed tunnel and take it straight. «Total damn stupidity! And the hedge, leading into the tunnel, will be two metres high – for the foxes and the raccoons!»

Officials at Road Administration have attempted to present Mr Loik and Mr Annus all kinds of explanations regarding bars and animals alike; in private conversations, some have indeed admitted that full-length rails weren’t indeed needed – but, they say, it’s too late now to alter anything. As also admitted by a designer of the road, Aimar Kuningas, the section has places where the rails could have been omitted.  

The official responsible for preparations of the constructions has left the Road Administration. Also, this time it’s extra easy for officials to hide behind the law – as also seen by Mr Annus and Mr Loik, having plunged into the Public Procurement Act, and reading therein that, in Estonia, in the middle of road construction, volume of the work cannot easily be altered. Only in such cases is it possible when unforeseeable circumstances surface during the work, not noticed while the contract is signed; with the Luige-Kurna construction design, however, there’s nothing unforeseeable whatsoever.

Surely, a new procurement could be arranged. But, who needs the trouble?

The law is rigid so road-builders could not start to file simplification-proposals in their own interests, Soviet style – builders always attempting to do it as cheap as at all possible. This time, as underlined by Mr Annus, the rigid law hits at public purse and safety.

Smaller slips always occur with building design documentation; and it would be dangerous if the errors cannot and must not be corrected later. According to a road builder desiring anonymity, road construction companies regrettably shy away from proposing changes, even if these would be needed and prudent.

«Many designs have errors; but as the time passes by, the contracts keep getting the kind where, even with better solutions on offer, it’s better for us to do what we’re told,» said the person. «With any change happening at a construction, competitors immediately raise the issue of why it was done and who benefited. And why waste all the crazy energy and then suffer yourself, in the end?»

Mr Annus and Mr Loik wrote a letter to the department at finance ministry that deals with public procurements; in it, they propose that the Public Procurement Act be amended to make it possible, in the future, to alter building design documentation for the sake of safety.

As admitted by Armin Lastovets, department head at the ministry, the law is rigid regarding altering contracts. At the beginning of the year, however, a new EU directive was ratified, to e included in Estonian legislation within two years. This will make it easier to alter contracts; then, no one will be able to hide behind the harsh law any longer – should troubled citizens opt to make the world a better place. 

Administration: beasts prefer lofty tunnels

According to Meelis Laanpere, project manager at Northern region building department of Road Administration, animals are more pleased to pass spacious tunnels, rather than narrow ones. The guardrails, according to him, come due to steep slopes. The steep slopes, in their turn, are due to the road area being narrow.

Why were full-length guardrails designed for Kurna-Luige road?

That was because of the angle of the slope, due to placement of ditches and land use.

Why have no full-length guard rails installed at other road sections recently reconstructed, like Tallinn-Narva highway?

Every time, the designer will consider the actual circumstances.

Why does Kurna-Luige road come with steep slopes, while these could have been gentle and the rails omitted?

Gentle slopes would require wider road area, making the road much more expensive.

Why wasn’t the road designed for up to 120 km/h, rather coming as a four-lane road for 100 km/h max?

That’s a design criteria and starting point issue.

Why do foxes and racoon dogs need a tunnel 1.7 m high and 2.4 m wide, having up to now successfully walked through tunnels far narrower?

Animal tunnel parameters are determined by fauna experts, and have been approved environmental impact assessment statement regarding the object. As also confirmed by observations by Road Administration experts, animals use the more spacious tunnels a lot more.