Italy awards €4.4bn contract for Sicily's controversial bridge

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The Independent Online

A giant bridge linking the Italian peninsula with Sicily, discussed for decades, came a step closer to realisation yesterday when the Italian government announced the winner of the contract to build it. The €4.4bn (£3bn) deal was awarded to the national construction giant Impregilo, bidding in tandem with firms from Japan and Spain and smaller Italian firms.

"Now everybody will understand that we were not joking," said the infrastructure minister, Pietro Lunardi. "The bridge is a great work which will unite Sicily and its six million inhabitants with the continent and for this reason it has enormous value socially, and for the urban and transport development."

Pietro Ciucci, managing director of the Ponte di Messina company, said work on the bridge would begin next year and be completed in 2012. The vast suspension bridge will stretch for nearly 4 km (2.5 miles) across the Strait of Messina.

It will be 60 metres wide and carry 12 lanes of car and rail traffic. The anchor posts will be higher than the Eiffel Tower.

The government says it will create 40,000 jobs for the six-year construction period, and bring €6bn to the region during the same period. Ministers hope it will transform the prospects of one of the poorest and most backward corners of the country.

But Ermete Reallacci, of the centrist Margherita party, a prominent environmentalist, said: "It will be a black hole for the public finances, an abyss that draws near while under our eyes a budget is taking shape made of nothing but cuts, sacrifices and missing funds. It is another proof of the schizophrenia of this government and their absolute deafness to the real needs of the country."

Environmental and financing concerns aside, the main worry about the bridge is the bonanza it will offer to organised crime. The Sicilian Mafia and their equivalent across the straits in Calabria, the 'Ndrangheta, are already immensely rich and powerful.

In 1998 the Direzione Investigativa Antimafia, the state body dedicated to fighting the Mafia, declared it was "worried by the great interest of the 'Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra" in the project. In 2000 it voiced a warning that the criminal organisations on both sides of the strait might "overcome their traditional rivalry in order to take the greatest advantage from the enormous spending power of the Calabrian administration in the coming years."

Calabrian politicians opposed to the project have received Mafia-style threats, with bullets arriving through the post, their homes set on fire and animal heads left on their doorsteps.