February 11, 2020 / 9:54 PM / 9 days ago

Atlantia readies proposal to end standoff with Italy's government: sources

MILAN (Reuters) - Benetton-controlled Atlantia (ATL.MI) is offering to forego majority ownership of its highway unit under a proposal aimed at resolving a dispute with the Italian government over its motorway concession, two sources close to the matter said.

FILE PHOTO: An Atlantia sign outside the company's headquarters in Rome, Italy, August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

In exchange for cutting its 88% stake in its Autostrade per l’Italia unit, Atlantia is asking for reassurances from the government it will be allowed to keep the contract to run about half of Italy’s toll roads, the sources said.

The group also wants guarantees that any changes to the formula used to calculate tolls do not impair Atlantia’s ability to carry out investments by excessively curtailing revenues, one of the sources said.

Atlantia’s board has authorized the firm’s top executives who are in contact with the government to offer to lower the stake in Autostrade below 50% provided the conditions set by company are met, the two sources said.

Atlantia and the government have been locked in a bitter dispute over the potential early termination of the group’s motorway concession since a bridge operated by Autostrade collapsed, killing 43 people, in August 2018.

Autostrade, whose minority investors are German insurer Allianz (ALVG.DE) and Chinese sovereign fund Silk Road, generates nearly one-third of Atlantia’s core earnings thanks to the motorway concession.

The bridge disaster triggered public outrage and repeated threats by Italian ruling coalition member 5-Star Movement to strip Autostrade of its motorway concession.

Autostrade have been accused of poor upkeep of the highway network and is under investigation for the bridge collapse.

Autostrade has denied wrongdoing.

The government, however, is divided over the early termination of Autostrade’s concession, and some members of the ruling coalition seem open to discussions with the group.

By loosening its grip on Autostrade, Atlantia could make space for a state-backed investor in the motorway unit, such as state lender CDP or infrastructure fund F2i, giving the government more oversight on highway investments and maintenance, analysts have said.

A major hurdle to a deal between the government and the company is finding a compromise over the value of Autostrade, they said.

editing by Valentina Za and Cynthia Osterman

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