Berlusconi's Dream Italy Wants to Bridge Sicily with Mainland

There's an idiom in Italian that translates as "Between saying and doing, there's a sea in between." When it comes to Sicily and mainland Italy, there's a sea in between, too, and it's a sea that Italy's recently re-elected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi plans to bridge.


A computer simulation of the bridge that Silvio Berlusconi hopes to have built between Sicily and mainland Italy.
DPA

A computer simulation of the bridge that Silvio Berlusconi hopes to have built between Sicily and mainland Italy.

Just weeks after being re-elected prime ministerof Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has once again put in motion long-delayed plans to build an enormous bridge between Sicily and the mainland.

At 3.3 kilometers (over two miles) long, the proposed structure would be the world's longest suspension bridge, connecting Messina on Sicily and Reggio Calabria on the toe of Italy's boot, which are now connected by ferry lines. Current plans envision a 12-lane bridge including emergency and pedestrian lanes as well as two train lines. The bridge would be suspended from two 368-meter-tall (1,207 feet) towers using two pairs of steel cables 5,300 meters (3.3 miles) in length and 1.24 meters (4 feet) thick.

Plans for bridging this divide go back all the way to the Romans and have been revived by such illustrious names as Charlemagne and Mussolini. In 2003, Berlusconi put Pietro Ciucci in charge of a company set up to run the project, Società Stretto di Messina SpA. Then, in 2006, the Berlusconi government granted the contract for the bridge to Impregilo, Italy's largest construction firm. The project was described as a "modern wonder of the world" and a "pharaonic" undertaking.

That same year, however, the Berlusconi government was replaced by one led by Romano Prodi and the bridge plans were tabled as being "not a priority" and of "doubtful viability."

Last Friday, though, Altero Matteoli, the new government's infrastructure minister, wrote Ciucci to say that it was an urgent priority "to create conditions for the resumption of the construction of the project as soon as possible." Current estimates put the start of the bridge's construction in 2010 and its completion in 2016, while cost estimates hover around €5 billion ($7.85 billion).

Unbridgeable Division of Opinions

Supporters of the bridge list a number of factors in its favor. First, they believe it would aid the region's economy by providing better infrastructure and that it would also allow for high-speed trains that could give tourism in the region a major boost.

A satellite image of the Strait of Messina. Sicily is the landmass to the left. The "toe" of the boot of Italy is on the right.
ESA/ESRIN

A satellite image of the Strait of Messina. Sicily is the landmass to the left. The "toe" of the boot of Italy is on the right.

Opponents of the plan see myriad reasons why the bridge should not be built. First, they question whether the bridge could withstand a trembler in the earthquake-prone area.

Others worry that the area's ecosystem would be hurt by the construction and that it would endanger rare animal species. They also argue that the bridge would not really be economically useful to the area, claiming that north-south traffic is much better served by water-borne freight than by trains and trucks and that the current ferry service between the shores is efficient enough. Instead, they argue, the funds would be much better spent modernizing and making more efficient the infrastructure throughout southern Italy.

Last but not least, opponents worry that some funds for the bridge would ultimately end up in the hands of Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta, the major organized crime groups in Sicily and Calabria, respectively, which are alleged to control much of the region's construction industry.

Nichi Vendola, president of Italy's Puglia region, told La Repubblica, that the bridge "will not unite two coasts but two cosche: the 'Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra," using the Italian word for a plant that is synonymous for a mafia crime family.

jtw/reuters

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