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.