July 13, 2020 / 12:32 PM / 21 days ago

Italy and Atlantia enter final round in motorway licence battle

MILAN (Reuters) - Italy’s prime minister poured scorn on Monday on the latest proposals tabled by Atlantia (ATL.MI) to end a dispute over its road toll licence triggered by the deadly collapse of a motorway bridge in 2018.

FILE PHOTO: The collapsed Morandi Bridge is seen in the Italian port city of Genoa, Italy August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The infrastructure group, which controls motorway operator Autostrade per l’Italia, offered 3.4 billion euros ($3.9 billion) to keep the lucrative licence, which the government has been threatening to revoke since the disaster.

Atlantia, which is controlled by the Benetton family, also said in the proposals tabled on Saturday it was open to cutting its Autostrade stake below 50% to make space for public investors but did not want to sell its entire 88% holding.

In an interview published on Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called the proposals “very unsatisfactory, not to say embarrassing”, signalling he would recommend revoking the concession which runs until 2038.

Atlantia shares slumped 15% on Monday to their lowest since March on concerns it could lose a concession that accounted for more than 10% of its core earnings last year and enables Autostrade to service 10 billion euros of debt.

A bridge operated by Autostrade in the port city of Genoa in northern Italy gave way on Aug. 14, 2018, sending cars and trucks hurtling 50 metres to the ground and killing 43 people.

Conte’s comments came ahead of a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to settle the dispute. Atlantia, whose Autostrade business operates about 3,000 km (1,875 miles) of highway in Italy, will hold a board meeting on the same day, sources said.

In addition to the 3.4 billion euro offer, Atlantia has proposed a capital increase that would dilute its stake in Autostrade below 50%, as well as investments in highway infrastructure totalling some 14.5 billion euros.

“Our proposal meets the requests put forward by the government,” Autostrade said in a statement, hinting at the risks from a revocation of its licence for its 7,000 employees and some 17,000 individual investors who own its debt.

In later comments, Conte reiterated that the cabinet would reach a collective decision on an issue that has caused tensions in the ruling coalition, with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement determined to strip Autostrade of the concession.

“In that case we will offer solutions,” Conte said in Germany, when asked what would happen if the licence were revoked.

The motorway issue has caused frictions between 5-Star and its centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and centrist Italia Viva coalition allies, who fear a potentially costly court battle and heavy compensation payments as well as job losses.

However, PD leader Nicola Zingaretti has endorsed a new state-centred motorway management, in a move that appeared to strengthen the likelihood of a revocation.

Additional reporting and writing by Angelo Amante; Editing by Kim Coghill, Mark Potter, Andrew Heavens and David Clarke

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