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Troubled Waters

Karl Hoffmann (th)June 3, 2008

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi plans to build a gigantic bridge over the Strait of Messina. The project would finally bring direct road traffic to Sicily. But the project remains controversial.

A computer model of the proposed Messina bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge would look puny next to thisImage: AP

The argument for building the bridge comes down to tourism. A bridge would allow tourists to drive over the strait instead of waiting in a long line for a ferry. It would allow traffic to flow seamlessly, avoiding the backups created in summer when droves of tourists flock into Italy and onwards to Sicily.

The dream of connecting mainland Italy and Sicily are not exactly new. The ancient Romans already recognized the advantages of easing travel across the strait and had plans for a floating bridge made out of many small ships. Italian military and political leader Giuseppe Garibaldi wanted to build a bridge in the mid-19th century as a symbol of Italian unity. And in 1969 a competition resulted in the first concrete bridge project.

A political nightmare

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi has thrown his support behind the projectImage: AP

But the project didn't really get going until Berlusconi won the elections in 2001. The bridge was scheduled to open in 2011. Yet when Berlusconi's center-conservative coalition lost, his successor, Romano Prodi, shelved the scheme as being pointless and expensive.

But now Berlusconi is back and so is the brigde project. It is now scheduled to be completed in 2018. But the residents don't believe a word. They don't believe it will be built in their lifetimes.

"My neighbor was 93," one unnamed resident said. "He had already heard about the bridge project as a 60-year-old. But in 93 years he hasn't seen a single trace."

Expensive project

Ferry headed across the Strait of Messina
Want to drive in Sicily? Take a ferryImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The project was projected to cost 5 billion euros ($7.8 billion), but after the delay the estimate has been raised to 6 billion. In the end the bridge could cost twice as much. Those opposed to the scheme feel that even that enormous sum is unjustifiable as the mafia is likely to profit handsomely from it.

The excavations required would in themselves be a massive undertaking, said Antonio di Natale. The marine biologist isn't worried about the mafia, he's concerned about the biological equilibrium of the Strait of Messina.

"Millions of sea dwellers swim through this path," said di Natale.The new bridge could be fatal to the sea creatures living there. For example, the bridge's shadow could block their routes.

"We do not know exactly, but I believe that we should not incur such a risk," the biologist said.

Does Italy need this bridge?

road sign at the entrance of Sicilian legendary town of Corleone
There's concern that the mafia will profit from the projectImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

There are similar concerns that the bridge would pose a danger to the millions of birds that migrate past here twice a year. But, most importantly, the construction is not needed, opponents say. It would be the largest suspension bridge in the world and have six traffic lanes and two train tracks.

But it would connect two regions which are famous for having poor infrastructures. In both Calabria and Sicily the highways and railroads which would connect to the bridge are extremely old.

For the bridge to pay off, the traffic volume would need to be around 2.5 million vehicles over the next hundred years. But a century from now, it may well be that the bridge has still not been built.