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Last Updated: Friday, 18 June, 2004, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Italy's bridge over troubled water

By Tamsin Smith
BBC correspondent in Messina

Computer simulation of Sicily bridge
Italians are divided over whether the Sicily bridge is a good idea

The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi loves big infrastructure.

His most grandiose plan to date is to build the world's longest suspension bridge across the Messina Strait, from the toe of Italy's boot to Sicily.

It would cost at least 4.6bn euros (3bn), and span 3,300 metres.

It is something leaders have dreamt of since Roman times. The government is currently inviting contractor bids with a view to begin building next year.

It currently takes just 20 minutes to cross the two miles of water separating mainland Italy from Sicily.

Trains, cars and lorries all roll onto ferry boats.

Passengers sit up on deck with a coffee, looking out over the turbulent waters of the straits of Messina that have inspired writers as far back as Homer.

But the view could be about to change.

Hi-tech dream

Massimo Marconi, the bridge's engineering director
Massimo Marconi has a vision of the world's longest suspension bridge

"From here you'll see a wonderful structure," says Massimo Marconi, the bridge's engineering director, as he gestures from one side of the strait to the other.

"It will be very tall, thin like a bird's wing, very technologically advanced," he says.

"It will turn the strait into a sort of bay, like the Golden Gate bridge."

Massimo Marconi also dismisses fears about the geologically unstable characteristics of this area, which saw a devastating earthquake in 1908.

"We've designed this bridge to withstand 7.2 on the Richter scale," he says.

"In fact if there is an earthquake, then stand on this bridge, there'll be no risk at all."

Waves of fury

But the project is already causing tremors among Italian environmentalists.

In Homer's Iliad, the choppy swirling waves in the strait are described as a whirlpool strong enough to sink the largest ship.

This is the stuff of legend, but the cyclical currents - where the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas meet - are evidence of a unique ecosystem.

"This bridge will be an environmental disaster for many rare species that only live here," explains Anna Giordano, Sicily's World Wide Fund for Nature's representative.

Anti-bridge protestors in Messina
Angry residents of Messina are trying to stop the bridge going ahead

"And the bridge pylon here in Sicily will go so deep it will affect the delicate water table that feeds the natural lakes of Faro and Ganzirri near the shore.

"People should think about the impact on birds and wildlife.

"This area is a national park and is supposed to be protected by the EU."

She is leading a group of anti-bridge protestors and Messina residents who have sent a petition to the high court to try and stop the bridge construction.

Unfinished business

Sicily is a graveyard full of big ideas started never finished.

There is the unfinished motorway, for example, that nearly runs from Messina to the capital Palermo. And there are incomplete railway lines.

"What we need is investment in basic infrastructure," says Guido Signorino, professor of regional and international economy at Messina University.

"We want something that will increase development and tackle our high unemployment rather than give short-term economic activity."

But his colleague Pietro Navarra sees more indirect opportunities.

"Even if the bridge only brings short term growth, it will throw an international spotlight on Sicily and this could attract other types of international investment," he says.

Mafia meddling

With Italy's economy in deep trouble right now, and the prime minister's popularity sliding, big infrastructure is an instant financial kick-starter.

The government estimates that construction could provide 40,000 local business opportunities in Sicily and southern Italy.

The problem is that any big infrastructure work is also of interest to organised criminals.

Magistrate Vincenzo Barbaro
The mafia could cash in, says magistrate Vincenzo Barbaro

"The mafia is likely to try to get involved in secondary activities like putting tarmac on the roads or providing concrete," says magistrate Vincenzo Barbaro in Messina's elegant courthouse.

"We're already working with the anti-mafia commission on a project to monitor suspicious business activity, so we hope we can prevent this."

In a restaurant overlooking the cloudless strait of Messina, locals enjoy fish caught fresh from these waters. They have heard arguments about the bridge for nearly 30 years.

"It won't be beautiful for us," says one woman.

"It's too big and I don't want to live in its shadow."

"We have water shortages here. Why don't they sort those out before building a bridge?" says her husband.

"It's a dream, nothing more."


SEE ALSO:
Tender launched for Sicily bridge
15 Apr 04  |  Business
Sicilian bridge to go ahead
06 Jun 02  |  Europe


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