Italy's €8.5bn bridge to nowhere

It's overpriced, favoured by the Mafia and at risk from earthquakes – but 15 years after it was conceived, it's still not been canned. Michael Day tells how an engineering marvel became a parable of modern Italy

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 – €600m has already been spent.

Consultancy fees, compensation for contracts never realised, and, ironically, cost-analysis have swallowed up nearly £500m without a brick laid or girder planted for the project, which it is expected would eventually cost around €8.5bn (£6.8bn). 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 decide the project's fate while "wasting money in the meantime on useless tests".

"The only winner in this case 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 that it has made "a strong acceleration" towards realisation of the project following 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.

Spending on the project will at least be lower that the pre-recession levels seen between 2001 and 2006, when the Berlusconi government financed all sorts of consultancy studies, from those on the "emotional impact" of the bridge for local people to the "physico-chemical characteristics of the waters of the Strait and their influence on migrating whales".

These nods to the environment were not enough to head off blanket condemnation from green groups.

But backers of the bridge project 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," Mr Zanchini of Legambiente told The Independent. "In the 15 years this has been going on for, no international company has ever been really convinced by the project, which would be incredibly difficult as well as very risky."

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

The bridge would carry 4,500 cars an hour and 200 trains a day to reduce reliance on the slow ferry services between the island and the mainland. But the plans have been consistently 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 vast edifice in one of the world's most earthquake-prone areas.

At a conference in Rome this week organised by Legambiente, Alessandro Guerricchio, a geologist at the University of Calabria, warned how the high risk of quakes, tremors and long-term movements of the earth made the project particularly perilous.

At the same meeting, Guido Signorino, an economist at the University of Messina, Alberto Ziparo an urban planning expert at Florence University and Anna Giordano of the World Wide Fund for Nature's Italian division, listed the financial, social and environmental arguments against the bridge's construction.

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.

The fact the project is often described as the "brainchild" of Silvio Berlusconi does not endear it to many. And it's usually the ex-Premier's political supporters who do the flag-waving for the bridge.

Nino Foti, a MP in Mr Berlusconi's PDL party, said he welcomed the decision to continue the appraisal work. "The two-year extension will allow a political government and not one made of technocrats to take responsibility on whether to go ahead or not with this project," he said.

It remains a distinct possibility that a future centre-right government, with or without Mr Berlusconi at the helm, might continue to press for the bridge's construction, although it's not clear if financial support from the European Commission would be forthcoming in the current economic climate.

The Messina Strait bridge project is not without its less partisan supporters, however, who say it would bring the culturally distinct and semi-autonomous region more in tune with mainland Italy.

Senior figures within the Sicilian division of Confindustria, the employers' organisation, have said that eventually the bridge will have to be built to provide the island region with the transport links, particularly rail services, needed to boost its economy.

Critics point out, though, that the rest of Sicily's road and rail infrastructure is so antediluvian that the island would not be able to exploit the new access provided by a suspension bridge.

And, just as proponents say a bridge would bring Sicily closer in spirit to the rest of Italy, many Sicilians, and fans of the evocative Mediterranean island, are against the project for the same reasons – hoping it stays as it is now, in many senses, a place apart.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, VBA)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition