ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s new right-wing government revived on Tuesday moribund plans to connect the island of Sicily to the mainland with a giant bridge – one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever conceived.
The bridge has been in the planning stages for decades, but appeared to have been killed off in 2013 when the former Prime Minister Mario Monti shut down the company created to oversee its construction amidst an austerity drive.
However, in her first budget since taking office last month, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni revived the company and will now look for help from Europe to finance the multi-billion-euro enterprise.
“This is the government and legislature that have the ambition to lay the first stone and start building this blessed project,” said Matteo Salvini, the infrastructure minister and head of the League coalition party.
Critics of the plan, which was first mooted by the ancient Romans, say it is a waste of public money and question the wisdom of building a bridge in an active earthquake zone.
Supporters say the mooted rail and road connection between the Sicilian city of Messina and the toe of Italy would breathe life into the country’s struggling economy and help reduce the gap between the poorer south and wealthier north.
The proposed suspension bridge would be some 5 km (3.11 miles) long and include a central span measuring 3.3 km – easily beating the current record holder, the Canakkale Bridge in Turkey that has a central span of 2.02 km.
At present cars, trucks and trains have to cross the strait that divides Messina and the toe of Italy, using a non-stop ferry service, which regularly gets snarled in peak season.
Proponents of the bridge say it will enable cargo ships from the Suez Canal to off-load their goods onto trains in Sicily, which would then whisk them to the north, cutting back on the need for costly voyages across the Mediterranean Sea.
But environmentalists say the huge bridge would endanger local eco systems and ruin the landscape.
“It is a useless project,” Gianfranco Zanna, president of the environmental group Legambiente Sicilia, told Reuters.
“With the ferries that are there now, everything can be done at a lower cost and with a very low environmental impact,” he said, predicting that despite the new-found government enthusiasm, the bridge would never see the light of day.
“Salvini is making it a flagship issue, so much more money will be wasted on a project that will never be built,” he said.
Italy awarded a 3.9-billion-euro contract to an international consortium in 2006 but later froze the deal as public spending came under scrutiny. Construction costs would likely be far higher, experts say.
Salvini said he would discuss the project in Brussels on Dec. 5. “I will ask that this strategic infrastructure corridor be co-financed by Europe,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Paul Simao)
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