Page last updated at 15:56 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Italy revives Sicily bridge plan

Computer simulation of the Messina bridge
Critics fear funds for the Messina bridge will simply be diverted to the mafia

Italy's government has revived plans to build a controversial bridge linking the island of Sicily to the mainland.

The Messina bridge, whose centre span of 3.3km (two miles) would make it the longest in the world, has been a pet project of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

His 2001-2006 government backed it, before the succeeding administration scrapped it.

It is part of a massive 17.8bn-euro (£15.9bn) public works programme to create new jobs and boost the economy.

The programme was announced on Friday after being approved by the cabinet and various government departments.

Funding for the programme is a mix of public and private resources, the Italian news agency Ansa says.

Besides the bridge, it includes new urban rail networks, motorway expansion, prison and school construction, and a flood barrier system in Venice.

Critics said it was merely a "reshuffling of funding", and that the government's priorities were wrong.

Mafia fears

Work on the construction of the road and rail bridge linking Calabria and Sicily over the Straits of Messina is now due to begin later this year.

Model of proposed Messina bridge
The bridge will span a busy shipping lane and will have to withstand high winds

The project was put on hold by the previous, short-lived centre-left government.

It was strongly criticised for two reasons, says the BBC's David Willey in Rome.

The first was on the grounds of safety. The bridge will span a busy shipping lane and will have to withstand high winds.

Secondly, many feared that huge amounts of taxpayers' money would be siphoned off by the Sicilian and Calabrian mafias, which control most public works projects in the south of Italy.

The government pledged 1.3bn euros towards the bridge as a contribution to its estimated cost of some 6.1 billion euros.

The opposition Democratic Party criticised the bridge project, saying it should not be a priority in the current economic climate.

The Italy of Values party said: "What we are seeing is a reshuffling of funding already approved by the previous centre-left government and the shifting of funds from projects like a high-speed rail link to the Messina bridge."

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