Venice to be linked to mainland by metro under lagoon

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Venice will be linked to its airport by an underwater metro, if a project to be unveiled next week by the city comes to fruition.

Venice will be linked to its airport by an underwater metro, if a project to be unveiled next week by the city comes to fruition.

Budgeted at €340m (£230m) the single track, eight-kilometre line is intended to join the mainland north of the commercial heart of the modern city, Mestre, to the historic island.

The project has been discussed for 50 years and still has many bureaucratic hurdles to clear before it becomes reality. Next Thursday an exhibition explaining the project in detail opens at the city's school of architecture. If it is built, it will be the boldest attempt yet to end Venice's picturesque isolation and unite its fate with the mainland.

The Mayor of the city, Paolo Costa, nearing the end of his term, claims that the point of the metro is "to give Venice back to the Venetians". The vaporetti - the water buses that carry the great bulk of traffic in Venice - "are bursting, they can't do it any more", he said. "The whole system of access to the city needs to be revised, we need to give to the old city the chance to become, once again, the productive heart of the metropolis."

The island of Venice has been haemorrhaging citizens for decades, as housing costs soared, floods became perennial and life in the city grew more expensive and inconvenient: half a century ago the population was 175,000, now it is 64,000. Mr Costa sees the metro as a way to reverse the trend. "The heart of Venice must become more usable. It must become a convenience and stop being a handicap," he said.

The plan is for the metro to terminate at Arsenale, the old munitions factory that is famous for the role it plays as a giant gallery space during the Venice Biennale festival.

"The metro will stimulate the growth of a new centre of activitiy around Arsenale," Mr Costa added, "which will transform the face of the city."

The novelist Henry James said that coming to Venice by train, along the causeway from Mestre, was "like entering a palace by the backdoor". Arriving by the "sublagunare" ("sub-lagoon railway") will be like coming up via the cellar and poking one's head up in the back yard: the metro's three stops on the island - Misericordia, Ospedale Civile and Arsenale - are all in the north of the island, well off the tourist track.

But for Anna Somers Cocks, who chairs Britain's Venice in Peril Fund, that is an advantage. "Venice needs more modern facilities of all sorts, and better circulation," she said. "At present, everyone comes in at the same point: this link would bring people into the back of Venice, which would help to set up other lines of circulation." The environmental group Italia Nostra ("Our Italy") bitterly opposes the plan, which it describes as "useless and dangerous". It claims the metro will deliver ever greater numbers of tourists and drive even more Venetians over to "terra firma".