After 2,000-year wait, Italy decides to build bridge to Sicily

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The Independent Online

The ancient Romans drew it, Garibaldi's men dreamt of it, and generations of Sicilians have been promised it ­ a steel rainbow that would connect Sicily to the Italian mainland.

The ancient Romans drew it, Garibaldi's men dreamt of it, and generations of Sicilians have been promised it ­ a steel rainbow that would connect Sicily to the Italian mainland.

Now, the controversial bridge over the Straits of Messina is one step closer to reality after Italy's centre-left government approved the mega-project this week. The decision saw pro-bridge ministers over-rule two Green ministers who claim the link is pointless, environmentally costly and a gift to organised crime.

The Interior Minister, Enzo Bianco, called it "a historic day for Sicily", Greens said it was a Pontius Pilate-like decision and local administrators said it was neither the clear yes nor no they hoped for. The government's approval is conditional on private investors, Italian and foreign, funding half of the estimated 10,000bn lire cost (£3,300m). At 3.3km (2 miles), the road and rail bridge linking Messina and Reggio Calabria would be the world's longest single-span suspension bridge. The opposition, led by Silvio Berlusconi, who has promised a programme of public works if elected, decried the decision as a cheap pre-electoral gambit.

The bridge has been a "national priority" for 30 years. The list of potential benefits is long; Sicily's economy is penalised by shipping costs and delays, European tourists are deterred by long waits for crowded ferries, and Sicilians face a long journey to reach the toe of the Italian boot just a few miles distant. The bridge would provide crucial jobs in areas where the unemployment rate is 25 per cent.

Opponents say it would increase traffic on Italy's overcrowded highways and point to the seismic risk ­ Messina was all but destroyed by an earthquake in 1908 ­ and damage to the environment. One constant argument against the huge bridge has been the Mafia ­ Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta ­ which have traditionally dominated public works contracts in the region. Nino Calarco, a former senator who for decades has headed the joint private-public Straits Bridge Company, said recently: "If the Mafia allowed the bridge to be built, then long live the Mafia".

No one has put a price on the 30 years of engineering projects, environmental impact reports and feasibility studies. Time was lost to divisions among political parties and companies. This squabbling allowed the growth of an anti-bridge lobby of ferry companies and environmental groups.

Sicilians seem ambivalent about a link to "the continent". Writing in la Repubblica, Sicily's top novelist Andrea Camilleri, hoped it would make his home "less an island, less proud and maybe less melancholy".

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