A bridge too far? Berlusconi plans to link Sicily to mainland

Silvio Berlusconi plans to connect Italy's mainland with its insular and 'gangster-ridden' island of Sicily. Can such a grand gesture tame the Messina Strait, ruled by monsters of legend and present-day mobsters, as well as the project's opponents? Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online

The strait is the stuff of legend. From the toe of Italy's boot Calabria falls to the shore in steep green folds. Two miles away, across sea said to have been ruled by monsters and mobsters, the ancient Sicilian city of Messina cascades down the steep hillside to the port.

The strait is the stuff of legend. From the toe of Italy's boot Calabria falls to the shore in steep green folds. Two miles away, across sea said to have been ruled by monsters and mobsters, the ancient Sicilian city of Messina cascades down the steep hillside to the port.

Now the Messina Strait is to be conquered ­ by the mightiest bridge in the world. It is the grandest gesture yet made by a politician who prides himself on being bold. But Silvio Berlusconi is in trouble. He has been battered by negative opinion polls, tormented in Iraq, where an Italian soldier died yesterday, and frustrated by an economy that has been flat for two years. He hopes the Messina bridge will be the ace up his sleeve.

Politicians and engineers have dreamed of bridging the two-mile strait between Italy and Sicily for thousands of years but Mr Berlusconi is the first prime minister with a big enough parliamentary majority, a sufficiently stable government, and the technology at his disposal, to see it through.

Its span between the main towers will be longer than that of any suspension bridge. The world's champion, Japan's Akashi Kaikyo bridge will still stretch further at a total length of 3,910 metres. But, at 1,991 metres, its span isshorter than the 3,300-metre bridge Mr Berlusconi plans to build. At 60.4 metres, with 12 train and traffic lanes, the Italian behemoth will also be nearly twice as broad. The four anchor posts of the Messina bridge will be 382.6 metres, 85 metres higher than those of the Japanese bridge, higher than the Eiffel Tower, and each will weigh 56,000 tons.

Engineers have designed a form based on a trimaran-hulled boat. Giorgio Diana, the director of the wind tunnel at the Milan Polytechnic, where tests were carried out, said: "Our task was to invent a structure capable of taming the wind forces, transforming them into an element of stabilisation. We succeeded in doing this by creating voids between the motor traffic lanes on the outside and the railway tracks which run down the middle. We saw that the resistance released by a single structure, like those adopted in bridges abroad, would trigger dangerous reactions." The structure is designed to absorb wind of up to 90 metres per second, twice the maximum expected in the channel.

Not everyone is impressed. Italy's most influential environmentalists, including the World Wide Fund for nature, are campaigning against the bridge, which they see as "damaging, useless and dangerous".

The European Parliament has given its support, but the European Commission is disturbed by Italy's bulging budget deficit, and unimpressed by Mr Berlusconi's plan for tax cuts before the European elections.

The billionaire media tycoon is plugging on regardless. Last month, his government invited bids to build the bridge, with a deadline of mid-July. The successful contractor will start building at the end of next year. When Mr Berlusconi comes up for re-election in May 2006, supposing he lasts that long, those awesome anchor posts should already by rising from the shore. The strait is a beautiful stretch of water. On each side the land ends abruptly ­ at one end Calabria and at the other the Sicilian city of Messina. Beyond the two headlands, high rolling mist-wreathed hills dissolve into the blue haze. Across the gently lapping channel, ferries putter constantly, making the two-mile trip in 12 minutes.

Superimpose now on this ancient landscape the structure of Mr Berlusconi's dream. It will be a thing of stupendous beauty; stretched so fine across the two miles of water that in the middle, seen from a distance, it will barely exist at all, merely a line drawn on the sky. From close up it will be a different story. The village of Torre Faro ("Lighthouse") is the last settlement on the sharp beak of land in which north-eastern Sicily finishes, and it is from among these modest streets of fishermen's terraced houses that the pillars will rise.

The village, or so the villagers to whom I spoke claim, is united in opposition to the bridge, which has been hanging over them like the sword of Damocles for decades. "We're all dead against it," said a youth in a tracksuit in the narrow main street. "You see that yellow house? That's where they're going to build the tower. But it's not going to happen soon. I think it will be 60 years before it gets built. Where are they going to find the money?"

A group of older men chatting near a boat yard by the shore were equally unenthusiastic. "It will destroy the village and the countryside around here," said one. "My house will be right underneath, it will block out the sun, there'll be no fresh air, just the fumes of the cars."

Another said: "There's no need for it. The ferries are quite enough for the traffic ... It will be dangerous in high winds. They're putting it right in an earthquake zone ­ Messina was destroyed by an earthquake in 1908. And it will destroy jobs ­ the construction work will only last for a couple of years."

The Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport claims the bridge will have no problem riding out a tremor of 7.1 on the Richter scale lasting 30 seconds, comparable to the one that levelled Messina. Environmentalists say that quakes as strong as 8.9 have since been recorded in other places, and that quakes lasting far longer than 30 seconds have occurred in Italy.

And a report published last year by Italy's National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment, says that a geological fault line runs through the strait. This means that the bridge's two anchor posts will constantly pull in opposite directions. Calabria, according to the report, is rising 2 millimetres per year because of the movement of the tectonic plates on which it sits, while Sicily is rising only half a millimetre. In the event of an earthquake, the opposite sides of the bridge would tug against each other it is claimed, widening the span by up to 50 centimetres.

Pietro Ciucci, the project manager on the bridge, dismissed such fears, saying that during the 30 years in which the bridge project has been under study, all these factors had been taken into account. The "technical life" of the bridge, he said, "will be 200 years. After that, we'll think again."

The Messina Strait has inspired writers as far back as Homer. Those who know their Iliad will remember that during his wanderings, Odysseus was obliged to sail through a narrow channel between two terrifying perils: a man-devouring sea monster called Scylla, a terrifying creature with six heads, each with three rows of teeth; and, on the other shore, the fatal whirlpool of Charybdis. To avoid forfeiting his ship, Odysseus cleaved close to Scylla, losing six of his sailors to the monster.

That channel was the Strait of Messina, and while neither monster nor whirlpool is in evidence today, the origin of the myth of Charybdis is said to be found in the unique behaviour of the waters there. According to the legend, three times every day Charybdis sucked in the sea water, and three times every day regurgitated it ­ exactly the way the channel's cyclical currents still behave. And that is another reason why the environmental lobby is hostile. The area has a unique ecosystem, home to marine life unknown elsewhere. Protesters wrote some years back in an appeal to Unesco: "From ancient legends, from myths, from recent literature and poetry, this area has gained a significance that permeates the culture."

It is, however, a plea that cuts little ice with a government in love with grand gestures. Big infrastructural schemes had been a consistent theme for Mr Berlusconi before his election victory in 2001. In December that year his government committed itself to a 10-year programme of 220 public-works projects, and overall investment of ¤26bn (£18bn). Of these the Messina bridge is the most grandiose.

Infrastructure matters to Mr Berlusconi not merely because it is an old-fashioned way to kick-start the economy, splashing money around and creating jobs; but also because it is one vital measure of how different his administration is from the weak and fleeting governments of the past. The starting of work last year on the Venice lagoon flood gates, after decades of bickering, was one clear demonstration of that. The Messina bridge will be a much louder and more dramatic one. In Mr Berlusconi's vision the bridge will knit the backward and gangster-ridden island of Sicily into the "continente", as Sicilians term the mainland. The trains that run down the middle of the bridge will eventually, it is claimed bring Palermo, the Sicilian capital, and Berlin within five hours of each other. It may indeed help to reduce Sicily's insularity, though its opponents claim the traffic estimates have been inflated. Yet the most obvious immediate beneficiaries of the bridge, as the canny villager of Torre Faro pointed out, will be the Sicilian Mafia. Cosa Nostra, as the criminal gang is known to its members, are as ubiquitous in Sicily as ever ­ with a finger in every pie, collecting protection money from every business and always keeping a weather eye out for promising new opportunities.

The Messina bridge, likely to cost at least ¤4.6bn and take six years to build, would be a Mafia business opportunity like no other. Since its emergence in the 19th century, the Mafia has has found it hard to get a foothold on the Italian mainland. It would be ironic if the bridge that was intended to bring Sicily out of backwardness instead enabled the Mafia to branch out at last into the "continente".

Pietro Ciucci, the project manager, will give a presentation in London on 1 June. Details: roadshow@strettodimessina.it