Immediately after the collapse in 2018 of Genoa, Italy's Polcevera viaduct that killed 43 people, the Italian government threatened the highway's privately-owned operator with huge fines and termination of its toll operating concession.

Now, as a 1.1-km replacement structure nears completion, the company, Autostrade per l'Italia (ASPI), is set to return to government control under a provisional deal.

Privatized in 1999, ASPI has contracts with the transportation ministry to operate around 3,000 km of Italian toll highways until 2038. The firm is 88% owned by the holding company Atlantia, which is controlled by its largest shareholders, the Benetton family, that has about a 27% ownership stake.

Since the bridge collapse, relations between the government and ASPI's owners have been highly acrimonious. In its campaign to unseat ASPI, the government passed the "Milleproroghe" decree last year slashing the level of compensation that would be due to the company in case of its contract termination.

ASPI was excluded from any direct involvement with the new viaduct's construction, but the company claims to have spent $690 million on various compensation measures in Genoa and to have completed a "radical change in management and all company processes" while raising its maintenance spending by 50%.

While ASPI looks set to retain its operating concession, a provisional deal agreed to at a recent Council of Ministers meeting chaired by President Giuseppe Conte would shrink Atlantia’s shareholding in the operator to around 35%, or eliminated altogether. The company would be replaced by the state bank Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and its approved institutional investors.

Under the proposed deal, ASPI would also agree to spend $3.9 billion in toll tariff discounts and extra maintenance and capital works, which would be $570 million more than it offered this spring. ASPI would also accept changed terms in its operating concession to mirror provisions in the Milleproroghe decree.

However, if no agreement is reached on the whole deal, the government could revoke ASPI's concession, which could  trigger a legal battle.

At the heart of this dispute is the Benetton family, whose founding of the Edizione Group in 1981 has led to a series of acquisitions in various sectors. The company reported combined sales totalling $15 billion in 2018. Through Atlantia, the family secured control of ASPI at its privatization 20 years ago.

Better known for selling colorful knitwear since the 1950s, the family's business is now dominated by its international toll highway concessions that cover some 14,000 km of routes in over 20 countries. 

The new viaduct's builder, PerGenova, will "hand over the keys" at the end of this month, says a spokesman for Italian contractor WeBuild S.p.A., a member of the PerGenova construction joint venture. A formal opening is planned for the first week in August.