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Italy wants to build the world’s longest suspension bridge. The Mafia and geography might make that difficult

Italy wants to build the world’s longest suspension bridge. The Mafia and geography might make that difficult

When the bridge to Messina is done, like in the English phrase “when hell freezes over,” there is a common expression in Italian that means “I’ll do it.”

The idea of a bridge spanning the Straits of Messina between the mainland and Sicily dates back to Roman times, when Consul Metellus, according to writings by Pliny the Elder, strung together barrels and wood to transport 100 war elephants from Carthage to Rome in 252 BCE.

Since then, there have been a number of designs, including a concept for a tunnel that was very briefly considered.

If constructed, the bridge over the Straits of Messina would be the longest suspension bridge in the world, measuring two miles (3.2 km) in length.

Thanks to a decree passed by the government of Giorgia Meloni last month after Transport Minister Matteo Salvini revived a plan that had previously been advanced when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister, the enormous engineering project may now actually be realised.

The consortium, currently known as WeBuild and managed by the Italian company Salini Impregilo, won the bid to construct the bridge in 2006. The plans to construct the bridge also broke apart with Berlusconi’s administration that year because Romano Prodi, the new prime minister, thought they were a waste of money and a danger to the environment.
Since then, other administrations have made efforts to resurrect it, and the current ruling alliance of Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi included it on their list of election pledges. Salvini made it his top goal when he was appointed minister of transport, pinning his future on the bridge.

WeBuild, which still holds the bid award on paper, filed a lawsuit against the government for breach of contract after the project was put on hold. However, despite “expressions of interest from all over the world, including China,” Salvini said in March when he presented the plan, WeBuild remains the most likely candidate to be given the job back.

Without specifically mentioning WeBuild, he remarked, “The ones who won the 2006 tender are the ones who will probably continue with the final version of the project.”

On April 18, the engineering director of WeBuild, Michele Longo, was called to speak before parliament on the resurrected scheme.
“The project to build a bridge spanning the Strait of Messina may be started right now. The project may begin as soon as the contract is amended and restored, Longo told lawmakers. “It is anticipated that the executive design will take eight months, while the bridge construction will take slightly longer than six years.”

According to the plan provided to the transportation ministry, the project will cost 4.5 billion euros ($4.96 billion) for the bridge alone and 6.75 billion euros ($7.4 billion) for the infrastructure needed to support it on both sides. This infrastructure will include improving the road and rail connections, constructing terminals, and preparing the land and seabed to “reduce hydrogeological risks” during construction.

According to the Italian Treasury Department, public monies totaling $1.3 billion have already been spent on feasibility studies since 1965. Salvini frequently claims that it will be more expensive “not to build the bridge than to build it.”

Lines of Discord and the Mob

Although the plans appear to be well developed, the difficulties are numerous.

Two significant organised criminal groups, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, excel at infiltrating building projects, making the southern region of Italy particularly corrupt.

A triumph was achieved with the recent capture of Cosa Nostra leader Matteo Messina Denaro, who had spent 30 years evading capture in Sicily.

According to evidence from informants who assisted in Denaro’s arrest, Denaro was opposed to the construction of the bridge, as are some other mob bosses, in part because the organised crime syndicates subsist off of poverty and underdevelopment.

Fears persist despite this. A 20-year-old anti-Mafia research from the Nomos Centre think tank, which is currently being revised, cautioned that the project’s transportation and supply may come under criminal control and that there was a chance that local gangs would demand protection money.

Salvini has downplayed worries. He recently told the assembly, “I’m not frightened about criminal infiltration. We will be able to ensure that the greatest Italian, European, and international enterprises work there. For each euro invested in the bridge, there will be supervisory bodies on which we are now working.

There are further geophysical issues that could be much harder to solve.
In 1908, a magnitude-7.1 earthquake in the Strait of Messina triggered tsunamis that wreaked havoc on the coastal communities on both the Sicilian and Calabrian sides of the ocean, killing more than 100,000 people. It is still the most fatal earthquake event yet to be seen in Europe.

The seas are also choppy. According to NASA, the intense wave patterns are visible from orbit and the currents are so strong that they frequently tear seaweed off the bottom. They also alter every six hours.

The bridge deck would be constructed to resist gusts of up to 300 kph and may continue to be open to traffic with winds as low as 150 kph under WeBuild’s initial proposal, which is the only one presently being considered since bids have not been launched and perhaps won’t be.

With train tracks running in the centre, there would be three car lanes in each direction: two for regular traffic and one for emergencies. 200 trains could pass each day and 6,000 automobiles and trucks could pass each hour under the existing design.
The 600-meter-long navigation channel created by the bridge would allow even the highest cruise liners and freight ships to pass. The bridge would be situated around 74 metres above sea level. Additionally, it would be built to withstand an earthquake with a 7.5 magnitude.

Longo informed the house that the building phase alone would generate 2.9 billion euros for the country’s GDP, employ 100,000 people, and use 300 suppliers. He said that “the majority of these people would come from the regions of Sicily and Calabria where there there are high rates of unemployment.”

With regard to the difficulties posed by the terrain, Longo told CNN that it is “one of the most dynamic straits of water anywhere between the depths and currents, but it is also one of the most studied areas. Numerous studies covering this subject total millions of pages. We have read each one. Nothing is impossible, but this is low risk, he said when addressing the risks of organised crime getting involved.

Wildlife finds it “devastating”

Environmentalists have maintained for a long time that the bridge would be terrible for the landscape and animals.

“One of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world is concentrated in the Strait of Messina, a very important place of transit for birds and marine mammals,” a spokesperson for the organisation Legambiente claims, adding that the bridge – both during and after construction – would disrupt migration routes between Africa and Europe.

The project’s revival has also been opposed by the World Wildlife Fund. Director of WWF Institutional Relations Stefano Lenzi stated in a statement that “the entire Strait of Messina area is a protected area under the EU Habitats Directive.” Before the plan was abandoned in 2006, the group was getting ready to file a lawsuit to try to stop it for violating European Union protected areas.
The half-hour boat, according to environmental organisations, is the least intrusive option.

Salvini maintains that the economic impact of the bridge would be significant because if high-speed railways are constructed on Sicily, which is now lacking, container ships from Asia could dock there and be transferred to Europe through high-speed trains.

Public opinion is still divided on both sides of the straits, with those who stand to gain financially from increased commerce and easier travel usually in favour and others who don’t mind keeping Sicily isolated in opposition.

After Meloni signed the decree to open the way for the implementation of concrete plans, the bridge has never been closer to being built than it is right now. In June, the order will become a law, and Salvini stated that he wants to start construction by July 2024.

Troubled seas and the Straits of Messina have long been associated. There is a reason why Homer built the den of the sea monsters for Scylla and Charybdis. There is little doubt that, regardless of when it occurs, the fantasy for some of building the bridge to Messina won’t be put to rest until it is accomplished, even though the only monsters may be ecological and criminal.


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