On a cold winter's day in Lalandia, a holiday resort on the Danish Baltic island of Lolland, two men faced off in a kind of duel. One came from Germany, the other from Denmark. The issue was whether Lolland and Fehmarn -- in other words, Denmark and Germany -- should be linked by a tunnel or a bridge. Or whether everything should remain as it is. It also had to do with two kinds of politics.
Hendrick Kerlen, the German, sat in the audience. He opposes a fixed link. In fact, he thinks a tunnel would be just as absurd as a bridge -- and he came armed with arguments and figures and, above all, questions.
Steen Lykke, the Dane, sat on the panel of experts. He works for Femern A/S, the Danish state-owned company tasked with realizing the project. Lykke had also come with figures and plenty of answers.
Kerlen and Lykke are engineers, both well over the age of 60. They have both had successful careers and worked abroad for many years. They share similar views of the world: Both men are cool-headed, rational and interested in feasible projects. They actually should be allies.
The problem is that Lykke's answers don't match Kerlen's questions.
Hubris and Self-Confidence
Lykke, who sports rimless glasses and a white beard, heads the planning team at Femern A/S. He came to Lalandia accompanied by an ornithologist, a marine biologist and a Norwegian expert in tunnel-related claustrophobia.
There were nearly as many Germans as Danes in the audience waiting for the great debate to begin. German opponents to the tunnel project have dubbed it "Fehmarn 21," putting the planned tunnel in the same category as a number of other controversial major projects in Germany, such as the railway station in Stuttgart (known as "Stuttgart 21"), the Berlin Brandenburg Airport and dredging the Elbe River in the port of Hamburg. The number 21 has come to represent the hubris of planners and the self-confidence of the country's citizens. It takes a project that appears to have cleared all the necessary hurdles and puts it in question again.
The Danes had examined four options for creating a fixed link between the two countries, and for a long time it looked like they would favor a bridge. On this evening, the Danish transport minister announced that the government had decided in favor of a tunnel.
It's an enormous, groundbreaking project: nearly 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) long, 40 meters (130 feet) wide, nearly 10 meters high -- and expected to cost at least 5.5 billion ($7.2 billion). Four tubes are planned: two for the highway, each with two lanes, and two for the railway, each with one track. The tunnel would consist of huge concrete elements assembled on land and lowered by boats into a colossal trench on the Baltic seafloor. It would be one of the longest immersed tunnels ever built.
Technical Answers to Political Questions
Lykke, the Danish engineer, talked about fresh air supply and emergency management, about colors and projected images of flocks of birds that would accompany vehicles in the tunnel. He mentioned LED lights installed in the walls, which could create soothing lighting effects to combat claustrophobia. Lykke sounded like a hypnotist.
The seafloor would be dredged and millions of cubic meters of silt and soil moved to make way for the immersion of thousands of tons of heavy tunnel elements. The marine biologist said that he's not particularly concerned, adding that if everything was done right the impact on the environment would be temporary.
A German conservationist asked why they had opted for a so-called immersed tunnel and made no mention of a bored tunnel. It was a valid question, but a question directed at experts, which allowed the Femern representative to provide a purely technical answer to a politically motivated criticism.
The conservationist asked three more technical questions, detailed questions, and with every response the Germans appeared to diminish in size while the Danes on the panel of experts seemed to grow in stature. Perhaps they derived pleasure from using indulgent politeness to sidestep these strange Germans with all their concerns. They gazed down at the German conservationist as if he were speaking a language that they didn't understand.
Finally, a member of the Danish Cyclists' Federation raised his hand. He said that bicycling enthusiasts would like to help offset the costs of the tunnel. Why were there no plans for a bike path?
Kerlen decided not to ask his questions. There was nothing more to say.
Making the Rough Smooth
That evening at Lalandia was "interesting," Kerlen said later. Now he knows what, or who, he's fighting against, he says. Lykke, the tunnel man, is his rival -- the man who, under normal circumstances, could be his ally.
There's a machine on a table that stands near the entrance to the house that Kerlen has built for himself on the island of Fehmarn. It's a small, motor-driven device that hums softly. "A stone polishing machine," says Kerlen. It could be the ideal metaphor for the battle that he's fighting: taking coarse, jagged stones and making them into pieces of smooth and shiny jewelry -- a triumph of tenacity.
Kerlen has lived on Fehmarn for 30 years. This is the first time that he has opposed something that seems to have been decided. His house stands on the outskirts of Westermarkelsdorf, a village in the northwestern corner of the island. The view from the kitchen window is of fields that extend all the way to the horizon. It's the house of a man who likes to keep things orderly and organized, and enjoys living a quiet life. At the age of 73, why does he put himself through all this -- the endless debates, the whole conflict?
Kerlen is an industrial engineer. He worked abroad for a long time and was employed by a consulting firm for 32 years. His job was to provide support for infrastructure projects around the world. Kerlen has been to Malawi and Peru. He has developed flood protection measures in South Korea and advised the Afghan Energy Ministry. He was there when the general traffic plan was drawn up for the Bangkok metropolitan area.
"I know the standards and I know how you have to plan projects," says Kerlen.
Piquing His Curiosity
In the beginning, when he first heard about the project, the belt link was still a German-Danish joint venture. Until now, only a ferry line has connected the two islands of Lolland and Fehmarn. The trip takes three-quarters of an hour and costs 66.50 when traveling with a car.
The proposed fixed link would reduce the travel time, just as it does with the Øresund Bridge, which has connected Denmark and Sweden since 2000. The idea is to connect Denmark and Germany in a way that is fitting for a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected. The distance between Lolland and Fehmarn is considerable, roughly 20 kilometers, and that piqued Kerlen's curiosity as an engineer.
Actually someone like Kerlen would be the ideal person to convince the people on an island like Fehmarn that such an effort is worthwhile. He has experience and technical expertise, he is precise without being pedantic, and he formulates his ideas clearly and concisely. "I wouldn't have got involved if the economic studies had been convincing," he says.
So Kerlen gathered materials, including feasibility studies, expert reports, traffic projections -- the whole works. He approached the fixed link project from the vantage point of an engineer. Perhaps this was the first misunderstanding.
The figures, Kerlen argues, "don't add up at all." They seemed arbitrary to him and the calculations did not appear to have been done properly. They failed, he says, to meet the standards that he believes in. This was the moment when the first doubts began to creep in. "My hunting instincts were aroused," he says.
'A Marginal Project'
In 2004 the Danish transport minister commissioned a study to determine the project's cost-benefit ratio. Kerlen has written many reports like this and he knows that it's easy to manipulate the benefits based on dubious assumptions.
The study calculated a ratio of 1:1.25. "The World Bank would say that this is a marginal project," says Kerlen, and smiles thinly. "It was clear right from the start that the interests of the construction industry are behind this." The way he sits there on his sofa, with his arms folded across his chest, you get the distinct impression that he's starting to really enjoy all of this.
Kerlen isn't affected by the construction project, at least not directly. In any case, he doesn't live on the state road that is slated to become an interstate highway. The route does not cross his property and he's not concerned about noise or traffic. No, he's primarily opposed to the tunnel because he's only found claims pertaining to its necessity, but has never seen any proof. As an engineer, he considers this an affront, and it runs contrary to his sense of civic duty.
For a while Kerlen thought that the politicians would be interested in what he had discovered. The tunnel will cost billions, and the members of parliament are lay people, not engineers like himself, so wouldn't it make sense to ask people who are familiar with the issues involved?
Looking for Logic
In that respect, Kerlen's struggle began with an attempt to get closer to the world of politics. After all, anyone who wants to have political influence has to understand how politics work and how political decisions are made so he has a chance of possibly reversing them.
But Kerlen's attempt to effect political change left him disillusioned. The closer he came to the world of politics, the more he felt that it eluded him. What's more, he took the politics much more seriously than many politicians. He was looking for reason and logic in an area where what matters is power and emotions.
When you get right down to it, says Kerlen, it has to do with the ratio between the costs and the benefits. What is sensible? What is reasonable?