Travel times from Hamburg to Copenhagen could be dramatically reduced within the next decade, with Denmark taking a big step forward towards realizing one of the biggest public infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Europe.
On Tuesday, seven out of the country's eight political party groups in parliament agreed in Copenhagen to move ahead with plans to build a Baltic Sea tunnel to Germany.
Tunnel construction would begin in 2014 for a planned opening in 2020. The transit passage would consist of three tunnels: two containing a four-lane highway and a third one with two train tracks. Currently, the stretch between Rødby in Denmark and Puttgarden in Germany, north of Hamburg, has only been served by ferry.
Safety and Environmental Concerns
Plans for a link across the Fehmarn Belt strait between Denmark and Germany go all the way back to the 1920s, so the idea is hardly new. For a long time it appeared to be a given that the two sides would be connected by a bridge. And recent plans nearly created a new landmark in the region: a bridge with 272-meter-high (892 feet) pylons and two levels, an upper one for cars and, most importantly, trucks, and a lower one for trains.
But there were safety concerns about the project. Around 40,000 ships pass through the Fehmarn Belt each year. By 2030, the figure could be double that. The danger of accidents would have increased massively. Conservationists also mobilized against the bridge. The link would have cut across a nature reserve, it could have disturbed important flight patterns for migratory birds and its bridge struts might have affected the sea current.
Environmental activists also have objections to the tunnel since its construction will initially disturb the sea floor and stir up sludge. No one knows whether the local seals, sea lions and whales will return after the building work is completed.
Longest Tunnel of Its Kind
What Denmark plans to build across this 18-kilometer (11-mile) stretch of water is no less than the world's longest underwater tunnel that uses the so-called immersed tube method. The individual elements would be built on land and then sunk onto the sea bed. The concrete pipes would be 200 meters long and weigh around 70,000 tons each. Each pipe has the proportions and weight of a supertanker ship.
But even if the tunnel's impact on the natural environment could be contained, there would still be questions as to the purpose and aim of the entire project. The Fehmarn crossing is the final missing link of the most expensive and important building project in Denmark's history.
The country's largest island, where the capital Copenhagen -- Denmark's economic center -- is located, is to be connected with the Danish mainland in the west, with Sweden in the east and with Germany in the south. The bridge over the Great Belt strait, which effectively divides Denmark in two, has been in operation since 1998. In 2000, the Oresund Bridge was opened to connect Denmark with Sweden.
Tunnels Cheaper than Bridges
And now, this final great sea connection is to be ready for trains and trucks in just a decade. Almost one-fifth of all of Denmark's trade is conducted with Germany, and this will make access much easier for exporters. While the same applies to trade in the other direction, Denmark plays a relatively small role for Germany, the world's second biggest exporter: Only 1.5 percent of German exports go to the country's northerly neighbor.
As far as important business partners go, it would be more interesting for Germany to have a bridge over, say, the Atlantic rather than one over the Fehmarn Belt. And that may explain why the government in Berlin has taken a clear position on the project from the outset: As far as they are concerned, Denmark is welcome to build the bridge, but they will have to foot the bill themselves. The terms of a 2008 treaty between the two countries stipulates that Denmark will finance the link in its entirety.
Fermen A/S, the company responsible for building and operations that belongs indirectly to the Danish Transport Ministry, estimates the tunnel can be built at a cost of €5.1 billion, around €100 million less than the cost of a bridge. The European Union could contribute up to €1.1 billion, with the remaining building costs to be financed from toll revenues by 2050. One good argument for the tunnel is that it will create jobs in Denmark's concrete industry. A bridge made of steel would have primarily benefitted Asian steel plants.
Infrastructure Improvement Overdue
Germany will not, however, be able to avoid some kind of financial involvement. It has already committed to electrifying the 90-kilometer stretch of rail between Lübeck and Puttgarden -- as well as laying a second track at a later date. The road connection from Fehmarn will also be improved.
These infrastructure changes will cost €800 million, according to the German government. Berlin's Federal Audit Office estimates the real cost to be twice as high, and opponents of the project think it will be higher still.
Experts argue over whether the project is economically viable. As always, there are studies that are mainly positive, predicting every possible advantage from an increase in commuter traffic to a tourism boom. And there are the naysayers who can see no positive outcome at all.
What's indisputable is that the rail connection between Lübeck and Puttgarden could stand to move into the 21st century. The single-track line meanders through villages and cow meadows, takes one hour and is mainly serviced by rather scruffy trains. This would change with the construction of a tunnel and corresponding investment on the German side.
Seaside Resorts Concerned about Plans
The rail journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen, which currently takes around four and a half hours, would be shortened by one hour. The same applies to the driving time between the two cities, which also takes about four hours at the moment.
But for tourist spots on the island of Fehmarn and many seaside resorts in the Bay of Lübeck, the plans are either a step backward, or a sheer disaster. Many towns already seem like a throwback to the 1970s with their concrete architecture. In the future, tourists will be able to drive straight to Denmark without stopping. Even Fehmarn would no longer be a natural stopping point any more, if the tunnel is built. Instead, it will become just one autobahn exit among many.
The seaside resorts also fear a dramatic increase in traffic. More cars, high-speed ICE trains and dozens of freight trains could influence their quality of life. Resistance to the project formed a long time ago. Opponents want neither a bridge nor a tunnel -- they want everything kept as it is.
Following Tuesday's decision, those who want to maintain the status quo have one last hope: Final approval for the construction of the Fehmarn Belt Bridge will not be issued in Copenhagen until 2013, once the environmental impact assessment has been completed. But that decision may be little more than a formality.