Linking Sicily to the mainland might be a bridge too far

Plans for the world's biggest suspension bridge between Sicily and mainland Italy have yet to come to fruition. Photo / Thinkstock
Plans for the world's biggest suspension bridge between Sicily and mainland Italy have yet to come to fruition. Photo / Thinkstock

It was supposed to be one of the engineering marvels of 21st century Europe. But despite decades of hype, plans for the world's biggest suspension bridge between Sicily and mainland Italy have yet to come to fruition, and most observers think they never will.

So austerity-hit Italians are now asking why the usually parsimonious Monti Government has just signalled its continued financial support for what newspapers have dubbed the "phantom bridge".

For a construction project, even a monumentally grand one, that's yet to see the light of day, an awful lot of money - €600 million ($942 million) has already been spent.

Consultancy fees, compensation for contracts never realised, and, ironically, cost-analysis have swallowed up nearly $977 million without a brick laid or girder planted for the project, which is expected to eventually cost around $13.3 billion.

This month, to the incredulity of the project's many opponents, the technocrat Government of Mario Monti announced a two-year extension in funding of the "exploratory work" into the project by the Messina Strait company.

However, environmental group Legambiente said ministers were effectively passing the buck and leaving it up to a subsequent elected government to decide the project's fate, while "wasting money in the meantime on useless tests".

"The only winner is the pro-bridge lobby," said the organisation's vice-president, Edoardo Zanchini.

It is probably no coincidence that the pro-bridge lobby consists largely of members of the centre-right PDL party, on whose parliamentary support Premier Monti relies. The last centre-left Government - that of Romano Prodi - shelved the project in 2006, only for it to be exhumed when Silvio Berlusconi returned to power in 2008. A verbose Messina Strait company statement claims it has made "a strong acceleration" towards realisation of the project since the interruption.

But the Italian press isn't convinced. "The circus goes on, continuing to spend money on realising a dream project that doesn't exist," huffed La Repubblica newspaper. It noted the Messina Strait company would continue paying the salaries of 50 or so people, including senior police chiefs and an executive from the Rai state TV company.

But backers of the bridge appeared to receive another fillip last week with reports the Chinese might be coming on board. Lorenzo Falciai, a spokesman for the Messina Strait company, said the China Communications Construction Company "had made no formal agreement, but had declared an interest".

"I don't think it's a coincidence that these vague comments come straight after the Government's announcement that more money would be wasted on the project for the next two years," Zanchini said.

It is true that architects have drawn up impressive plans for the 3.2km-long construction, with twin suspension towers higher than the Shard building in central London.

The bridge would carry 4500 cars an hour and 200 trains a day to reduce reliance on the slow ferry services between Sicily and the mainland. But the plans have been opposed by environmentalists and dogged by safety concerns: the bridge would span a busy shipping lane and would have to withstand high winds, and there is the issue of having to construct the edifice in one of the world's most earthquake-prone areas.

The other spectres hovering over the Strait of Messina are those of Mafia involvement. The huge suspension bridge would link the territories of Italy's two biggest crime syndicates - Cosa Nostra and 'Ndrangheta. Critics predict the project would represent the biggest payday in the history of Italian organised crime, which has a hand in most of the public works contracts in southern Italy.

It remains a distinct possibility that a future centre-right government, with or without Berlusconi at the helm, might continue to press for the bridge's construction.

The Messina Strait bridge project is not without its less partisan supporters, who say it would bring the culturally distinct and semiautonomous region more in tune with mainland Italy. Senior figures within the Sicilian division of Confindustria, the employers' organisation, said that eventually the bridge would have to be built to provide the island with the transport links, particularly rail services, needed to boost its economy.

- Independent

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