By Christian Lowe
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's government on Thursday dismissed the head of the state road agency, who had been at the center of disputes between Poland and international engineering firms over a European-backed road-building program.
Many contractors allege that Lech Witecki's agency, known by its Polish acronym GDDKiA, had forced them to take heavy losses on contracts to build Polish motorways, and even drove some into bankruptcy. Witecki has denied the allegations.
Firms that have been in dispute with the Polish road agency over payments include Austria's Strabag and Alpine Bau, a unit of Germany's Bilfinger, Ireland's SIAC, SISK and Roadbridge, and a unit of Spain's Ferrovial.
Witecki's dismissal was announced in a statement from Elzbieta Bienkowska, Poland's deputy prime minister who also oversees the transport and infrastructure ministries.
"Many things have certainly succeeded and everyone feels a qualitative leap that has been made in this time," she said.
"Unfortunately we were unable to avoid mistakes. The most severe were many delays in the schedules of work and the bad atmosphere of cooperation with contractors and the entire construction sector."
She said it was time to inject new energy into the roads agency. There was no immediate word on who would take over permanently from Witecki, who had been in the post since 2008.
A Reuters Special Report last year contained allegations from construction industry executives that Witecki had, in many cases, refused to extend the deadline on road projects, or to increase the budget, even when there were legitimate engineering reasons for doing so.
The executives said that, as a result, they went over-budget or behind schedule, allowing GDDKiA to impose financial penalties or withhold payments. The agency said it had abided by EU and Polish rules, and that the contractors were to blame.
Several construction executives said the industry had lost trust in Witecki and that their firms would hesitate to bid on any new Polish road-building contracts as long as he remained in charge of the agency.
The road-building under Witecki was part of a 37.56 billion euro ($51.37 billion), seven-year EU infrastructure program for Poland - the European Union's biggest ever development program in a single member state.
Six EU governments, including Germany and France, complained to Poland about the way their companies were treated by GDDKiA, and the European Commission said it was looking into the issue.
(Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)