Italy is again considering starting one of Europe’s greatest unbuilt structures: the longest suspension bridge in the world, stretching 5.3km across the Straits of Messina between Calabria and Sicily.
Angelino Alfano, the minister of the interior in the government of Matteo Renzi, announced on 10 September that he was preparing a “legislative initiative” to restart the scheme.
Alfano, who is Sicilian, said the plan was a vital part of a package of works to promote economic growth in southern Italy.
“I see no reason why we should not talk about the bridge over the Straits of Messina and we in parliament are introducing a bill to make it happen,” he said. “I know that the left will be against, but it will happen.”
The bridge has been a political football in Italy for a generation.
This latest revival caused friction in the governing coalition, with Francesco Boccia of the Democratic Party accusing Alfano, leader of the New Centre Right party, of raising the issue in an attempt to “survive”.
But Vincenzo Garofalo, a member of the right-wing Popular Area party and the vice president of Transportation Commission, claimed the bridge was “essential work”.
The 40-year project
A company called Stretto di Messina was first set up to build the bridge in the 1980s, and detailed design work was carried out in the 1990s. The plan was to build a bridge with six traffic lanes, two railway tracks and two pedestrian lanes.
The Straits of Messina (GCR)
To ensure the bridge did not affect shipping, the 5.3km-long deck was to be 65m above sea level, and the supporting towers were to be 383m, making it the tallest bridge in the world.
But it was cancelled by the government of Romano Prodi in 2006.
Three years later, the idea was revived by Silvio Berlusconi’s administration, with the federal government proposing to put $1.5bn towards the project’s total cost, estimated to be about $7bn. The scheme was again cancelled in 2013.
A lack of enthusiasm in Brussels is thought to have held the scheme back.
The bridge is an element in the EU’s trans-European networks, but the European Commission has not made it a priority for funding, and in 2009 the Court of Auditors expressed scepticism about its feasibility and economic justification.
Present estimates of the cost vary between about $5.5bn (put forward by Italian contractors) and $9.5bn (put forward by green groups).
Salini Impregilo champs at the bit
The last cancellation triggered a legal dispute between Salini Impregilo, the Italian contractor that was to have built it, and the Italian state. Salini claimed $780m in compensation.
The announcement that the scheme may be back on the government’s agenda was greeted with enthusiasm by Peter Salini, chief executive of the contractor.
He told a press conference on 17 September: “The Strait Bridge is a resource for the south and it is important for the country. We are ready to pick the job up where we left off: it’s a beautiful thing.”
He added: “I still believe in it. I think it can have a great significance for the development of the South. We can’t leave the South in the hands of crime – we have to invest.”
He said that an improvement in Sicily’s notoriously poor transport infrastructure could transform the island into a “Mediterranean hub”.
Italian regionale trains are decoupled and loaded onto a ferry to be taken across the straits, a process that takes more than an hour (GCR)
At present Sicily, the second most populated island in Europe, maintains links with the rest of Italy by ferry – even trains from the mainland are shipped over the straits and put onto rails on the island.
If built, the bridge would be more than twice as long as the present holder of the record for the longest suspended span, the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in Japan, which links Iwaya Island to the southern city of Kobe.
Its central span stretches for just short of 2km.