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The deal that's destroying Russia's roads An elaborate bribery scheme is costing St. Petersburg billions in state revenue, all while trashing the city's streets and highways

Meduza
19:21, 14 june 2017

A mobile weighing station on a highway leading into St. Petersburg

Photo provided by the Transport Operators’ Association of Russia

In 2015, Russia introduced stricter penalties against truck drivers whose vehicles exceed the weight limits on highways. According to truckers, virtually every dump truck, cement truck, and similar vehicle on Russia’s roads today is overloaded. Several drivers and entrepreneurs recently revealed to Meduza that police inspectors and road safety authorities in St. Petersburg have created an illicit “subscription fee” system, allowing overweight trucks onto the highways without any weight check. This system reportedly includes special papers marked with distinctive logos, as well as mass text messages to alert drivers where they might encounter unfriendly weighing stations. According to Meduza’s calculations, the total volume of payments into this illegal system could amount to 20 billion rubles ($351.4 million) a year.

“Which fees are you here for?” Vitaly keeps asking me, apparently not hearing me when I introduced myself as a journalist. Vitaly owns a cargo transportation company. “If it’s for dump trucks, then Alexey will call you back. He’ll try to help out.” Finding out the cost of an illegal monthly subscription for St. Petersburg’s truck drivers is almost like researching the legitimate road fees.

Before long, Alexey does call back, and he proceeds to tell me how much money dump truck owners pay the road safety authorities to circumvent the cargo monitoring system: “16,000 rubles [$280] a month for within the city and within 50 kilometers [31 miles] around the city. Unlimited use. There’s only one [traffic police] crew that’s impenetrable [outside the illegal system], but you’ll get a text message with the exactly location and coordinates showing where they are at all times.”

Alexey apparently mistakes me for an entrepreneur planning to ship bulk goods into St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region. A consummate businessman, he explains to me the rules of the game now accepted on the market. These rules are so widely accepted today that several sources who spoke to Meduza about the system do not even consider it necessary to hide their names in this story. 

Vladimir Matyagin, the director of the “Gruzavtotrans” association, says the average freight carrier pays 20,000 rubles ($350) a month to use St. Petersburg’s highways unimpeded and to avoid the fees for overloaded trucks. According to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service, there were roughly 300,000 trucks registered in St. Petersburg and the surrounding region in 2015. Matyagin says about a third of these vehicles are regularly overweight, and most of the owners pay for “subscriptions” to the circumvention system. In 2015, the region’s officials recorded 5,500 traffic violations by heavy trucks and 880 violations of cargo transportation rules. The next year, courts heard a total of 463 cases involving violations of regulations on the transportation of bulk goods and dangerous cargo.

According to rough estimates, the total annual amount of monthly payments into St. Petersburg’s illegal highway “subscription” system is close to 20 billion rubles ($351.4 million). The city’s entire budget for road repairs, meanwhile, is just 3 billion rubles ($52.7 million).

Would you prefer to pay a bribe or a fine?

Alexander Risov’s company does sand-cement flooring in home construction. He used to order truck deliveries of sand and cement from another business, but last year he decided to save money by buying his own freight truck. Knowing the laws and the penalties for overweight heavy vehicles, he specifically acquired a small dump truck capable of transporting 10 cubic meters (353 cubic feet). On November 1, 2016, Risov says his truck was loaded below its maximum cargo, carrying no more than 9 cubic meters (318 cubic feet).

When Risov’s truck tried to enter St. Petersburg, his driver was stopped at a traffic police outpost. Risov says the officers told his driver, “You’ve got 15 minutes for someone to call us and send something.” But there was nobody to make the call. Risov says he’d heard of the “subscription payments,” but he’d decided on principle to obey the rules. Twenty minutes later, the truck was rolled onto the scales and weighed. The truck wasn’t over the maximum weight, but the rear axle turned out to be overloaded. According to Russia’s highway rules, an overloaded vehicle is not permitted on the road, and so the police impounded the truck. Risov was then unable to remove his vehicle from the impound, as long as it was still overloaded. Police, however, refused to allow another freight truck into the auto impound, making it impossible for Risov to retrieve his truck and his cargo. In the end, the businessman says he

paid the police 50,000 rubles ($880) to look the other way for 10 minutes, while his driver removed the truck from the impoundment lot.

In these cases, a court determines the size of the fine. “To resolve [the situation], we had to collect a bunch of documents,” Risov says. “We discovered that the traffic police’s scales were certified, but the certification company at that time had no operating license.”

Russia’s police, it turns out, are required to recertify their scales every year, to ensure their accuracy. 

“But the judge refused to consider our arguments,” Risov says. As a result, his company was fined 300,000 rubles ($5,270) for overloading the vehicle. Looking back at the whole incident, Risov says he realized that his purchase of the truck had been in vain. “It turns out that it costs me a lot more to deliver materials with my own driver on my own truck than it does for competitors who pay [the traffic police]. Large dump trucks loaded with 20 cubic meters [706 cubic feet], and they incur the same overhead costs, simply by paying the subscription fee,” Risov says. 

A fully loaded 20-cubic-meter dump truck on the streets of St. Petersburg
Ilya Zhegulev / Meduza

As Risov and I make our way through St. Petersburg to meet a driver, huge dump trucks carrying mountains of sand pass us by, one after another. “That’s a 20-cubic-meter dump truck,” Risov says, pointing at one of the vehicles. “If a truck like that is filled even halfway, it’s already overloaded.”

The weight restrictions on Russian highways first appeared in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union started mass producing heavy trucks that wreaked havoc on road surfaces. In the early 1960s, officials implemented the first regulations to protect the highways — rules that are still in place today. 

The carrying capacity of trucks today often exceeds their weight by two or even two and a half times. For example, the configuration of modern dump trucks like the KamAZ 6520 basically makes it illegal for such vehicles to travel the roads while loaded even halfway. A standard 20-cubic-meter KamAZ, meanwhile, can observe Russia’s road regulations and avoid fines only if it’s loaded below a quarter of its capacity. It’s not even legal to fill a 10-cubic-meter truck.

The rules created in the Soviet era haven’t changed much, says Andrey Bazhutin, the chairman of the Transport Operators’ Association of Russia. He says “money is plundered” in Russia, while officials in Europe use toll fees to renovate their streets and highways. “Instead of building new reliable roads, [Russian officials] underreport cargo weight,” he says. And he offers some examples: in Europe, the maximum load on a tractor’s front axle is 12 tons (in fact, it varies between 10 and 14.5 tons, depending on the country), and in Russia it’s 10 tons (though on some roads it rises to 11.5 tons). “Also, in Europe it’s the cargo shipper, not the driver, who’s held responsible for overloads,” Bazhutin adds.

In the summer of 2015, Russia raised the penalties on overloaded trucks. For years, the Federal Road Agency has complained about the harm inflicted on the country’s highways by heavy trucks. Officials estimated in 2014 that these vehicles cause roughly 2.5 trillion rubles ($43.8 billion) in damages every year.

Also in 2015, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov chaired a presidential working group on road development. He wanted to raise the penalties on overloaded trucks — even fines levied against individuals — to 500,000 rubles ($8,760). The government didn’t adopt Minnikhanov’s recommendation, but lawmakers did substantially change Russia’s administrative code regulating cargo transportation, raising maximum fines against legal entities to 500,000 rubles, and placing responsibility on both the drivers and the cargo shippers. Freight trucks now can’t be overloaded more than 2 percent, and officials are required to check each axis, not just the vehicle’s overall weight.

Semi-truck drivers are less likely to encounter problems with overloading. The containers on their vehicles are longer, and cargo can be distributed over multiple axes (though truckers protesting against Russia’s controversial “Platon” toll system have also complained to Meduza about overweight fines). Most of all, the new system affects drivers of concrete mixers, dump trucks, and oversized cargo trucks. If a truck like this is registered to a legal entity and hit with an overweight charge, it’s almost impossible to avoid a penalty of several hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Matyagin says the market reacted initially by raising the rates on freight deliveries, while police cracked down on overloaded trucks in the summer of 2015, soon eliminating overweight vehicles — even dump trucks — from the roads, he says. But then the situation changed: “In order to earn some extra cash, the traffic cops started stopping trucks and asking, ‘Hey, why are you driving around half-loaded? Fill it up all the way.’” In what would be a spectacular deal for the freight companies, traffic police encouraged drivers to carry more cargo in exchange for payments under the table, Matyagin says. Several large heavy delivery companies were the first to join the scheme, and later all the smaller firms came aboard. When the new situation became clear to everyone, the market resettled and freighters dropped their delivery rates back to the old levels. “Sometimes it was even cheaper,” Matyagin says.

The “Armada” certificate

On the windshield of Andrey’s 10-cubic-meter dump truck, there’s a sheet of paper with a big letter “A” against a yellow background. “This is like my vehicle inspection certificate. It’s good for a year,” Andrey says, calmly allowing me to photograph the document that lets him drive unhindered throughout the city with an overloaded truck. Andrey, who owns his truck, says these certificates used to be fairly unsophisticated: just a sheet of A4 paper with the word “Armada” printed on them. (He says he doesn’t know why they chose this word.)

St. Petersburg’s highway subscription system now uses a special logo, which you can find on any participating trucks. Andrey says a monthly subscription for unlimited overloaded transit runs 20,000 rubles ($350), though there are certain areas within the city where you can pay less, because there are fewer people involved in the scheme there.

Identification markers for police inspectors behind the windshield of a dump truck
Ilya Zhelgulev / Meduza

“Subscriptions” are usually worked out the first time a loaded dump truck goes up for road inspection. According to a former traffic police officer, the system used to be managed by “neighborhood watch volunteers” — most often, retired police officers or trusted representatives of high-ranking officials. Today, the state highway inspector works directly with the heads of the regional traffic police.

Vitaly, who owns four dump trucks, confirms these reports: “So you buy a dump truck, you bring in the first shipment, and they stop you. The first time you’re there, you can strike a deal: you hand over 5,000 rubles ($87), and they’ll let you go. And if you say, hey let’s work together, then they’ll tell you to come to some specific office. And nobody’s wired. They’re not worried about anything.” 

Vitaly says he deals directly with police officials, and he only works in three districts in St. Petersburg, so he gets a discount on his subscription: 44,000 rubles ($768) a month, which breaks down to 11,000 rubles ($192) per truck. “If you don’t pay [for a subscription], even the minimum penalty is a 10,000-ruble ($175) fine and it’s another 19,000 rubles ($330) for the tow truck,” Vitaly explains. 

After the successful negotiation of a subscription payment, weight control inspectors record trucks’ license plate numbers on a special list stored on their smartphones, the former traffic officer told Meduza. If a truck’s plate number isn’t listed, the driver is given 15 minutes to call his supervisor, who then sends a text message confirming the truck’s paid subscription. With that, police release the overloaded vehicle back onto the roads.

Multiple drivers told Meduza that freight supervisors have been “taking out extra insurance” lately, sometimes removing all certificates and extra identification markings from their trucks, and relying entirely on the weight control inspectors’ illicit database. Sources also told Meduza that drivers receive text messages alerting them about where they might encounter traffic police crews not participating in the subscription scheme, for instance at the city’s engineering inspection checkpoints. “Subscribers” pay their dues both in cash and through bank transfers, including direct debit card payments, Vitaly says.

The St. Petersburg Road Safety Authority did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the illegal subscription system. A source working in the agency acknowledged to Meduza that similar organized schemes were widespread in the past, but claimed that the Bureau of Internal Affairs has become more attentive to these matters lately, “taking on each [case] individually.” 

Nevertheless, eight people — drivers, entrepreneurs, and a former traffic cop, all strangers to each other — described the same illicit network to Meduza’s correspondent. The former officer says that different rules operate in Moscow, where cargo control is stricter, he says. Sources also tell Meduza that there could be similar subscription systems up and running in other regions across the country. Vitaly says he also pays subscription fees on his four trucks in Voronezh and Rostov-on-Don, where he spends 16,000 rubles ($280) a month in each city to pay the police to look the other way.

Report in Russian from St. Petersburg by Ilya Zhelgulev, translation by Kevin Rothrock