The ministry knew about problems before the Italian viaduct collapse that killed 43 but the disaster has brought them into stark light. This is especially so as France had a narrow escape in May when a landslide undercut the A15 Gennevilliers motorway viaduct in north-western Paris.
It happened on the day Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne revealed an urgent security plan for state-maintained roads, bridges and tunnels in response to a report ordered last year that blamed cuts in maintenance budgets for the network being in a “critical state”.
The report said urgent work was needed on 800 bridges, one in three of the 12,000 major ones needed mostly preventive work and 17% of roads were badly damaged with potholes.
Many small bridges that were communes’ responsibility were not covered and some have had little money spent on them.
Ms Borne said there had been “manifest under-investment” in repairs and said it took 22 years for a bridge to be repaired from when first problems were noted.
She said from 2019 the roads budget would rise to €1billion a year from €800million.
British bridge engineer Ian Firth, who designed the Pont Schuman in Lyon, said maintenance was key.
“Bridges are designed to last for years but are also meant to have engineers inspecting them regularly; if that has not been done then problems may arise.
“The last few years have seen much more traffic on the roads, much heavier lorries which can cause a lot of damage, and competing spending demands. It is good to see more money in the roads budget if it means proper inspection and maintenance.”
Céline Kastner, public policy director at the Automobile Club Association, said the state of council-maintained roads was alarming, with road maintenance given lower priority than social services in tight budgets.
“We estimate motorists pay taxes of €26bn more to the state than is paid to maintain the roads. It is particularly galling as the taxes motorists pay to be able to drive rises all the time.
“This is the latest of a series of reports which all show urgent action is needed, but it seems as though Ms Borne is serious in working for more spending.”
The percentage of roads said to be badly damaged in mainland France has risen from 14% in 2007 to 17% and the report said without change the percentage would rise to 62% by 2037, and that 6% of bridges would be unusable.
The report authors said roads for the most part needed preventative maintenance to stop cracks becoming potholes that damage road foundations as repairs cost three times as much as regular preventive work.
They said France needed to spend up to seven times as much as it currently does to save its road network.
Meanwhile, transport users group Fnaut has said the government must set up new maintenance schedules for vital road and rail links to avoid risks.