When planning a bridge is no small decision
When planning a bridge is not a small decision, it can lead to a decision that will never be made. In a recent podcast, journalist Giuseppe Colombo informed us that the dream of connecting Italy’s two coasts of Calabria and Sicily, separated by the Strait of Messina, has been captivating people for 2,000 years. Pliny the Elder, Roman philosopher and military leader born in AD 23 spoke of a plan to bridge the strait with a series of connecting boats. The idea was scrapped because it was clear that more traffic crisscrossed the strait in a north-south direction than in an east-west direction, so that no structure on the water could be permanent. Since then, Italian politicians have regularly brandished the prospect of a suspension bridge or, according to the fashionable engineering firm, a tunnel, as one of their campaign carrots and these companies are paid handsomely for their projects. Projects which, however, are just as regularly put on the back burner.
Real obstacles in the planning of this bridge
The Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, spanning the Akashi Strait, connects the Japanese city of Kobe and Awaji Island. It is the longest suspension bridge in the world, with its central span measuring 1,991 meters. It is made up of six tracks with a combined length of 3,911 meters. One example among many others. The Strait of Messina, in comparison, is 3 kilometers wide at its narrowest point at the northern end, so in engineering terms a suspension bridge is feasible.
However, there are major difficulties: seismic risk, surface currents, environmental impact, political disputes, opposition and fear among local communities that a bridge will lead to the disappearance of income from ferry transport to the towns of Villa San Giovanni. , Reggio Calabria and Messina – an important part of their economy.
Constant risk of earthquakes and currents
The strait is one of the most seismic areas in the Mediterranean. The complex Afro-European tectonic plates, the presence of volcanoes on the water (Stromboli, Etna) and submarines (Marsili) are responsible for the almost constant tremors with which the inhabitants of the region live. These are constantly monitored, and Etna in particular periodically makes its presence felt. In the 19th century, folklore was replete with tales of epic seismic events. Among them, the 1783 series of earthquakes in Calabria that killed around 30,000 people.
Then, on the night of December 28, 1908, reality struck home when a 7.1 Mw earthquake destroyed the three cities mentioned above. It was followed ten minutes later by a tsunami with waves 12 meters high that crashed buildings and people into the sea. The damage was supplemented by landslides and spontaneous fires. The death toll from all the events of that night of 1908 was estimated between 75,000 and 82,000, of which 70% were in Messina, on the Sicilian side. It is ranked as the most destructive earthquake to ever hit Europe. Reconstruction was slow, and public enthusiasm for Mussolini’s fascist party in Sicily in 1929 was, in part, due to the party’s promise to immediately intervene in public works.
As if the seismic risk were not enough, the Strait of Messina is subjected to strong surface currents known for a long time as a danger for navigation. Add to that the deep tidal currents that create a unique marine ecosystem. The latter, according to experts, would inevitably and irrevocably be altered and the consequences are not clear. A natural whirlpool and underwater current in the narrowest part of the strait are particularly dangerous and have been linked to the Greek legend of the immortal monsters Scylla and Charybdis described in Homer’s Odyssey. These coincide with the modern Scilla and with the hypothetical location of Cariddi.
No bridge (No Bridge) started as a grassroots grassroots project against bridge building and is now a coordinated national body of associations and individuals who support environmental impact in an area with the greatest biodiversity in the Mediterranean where 12 Natura 2000 sites are located and protected by European law under the Habitats and Birds Directive. The attractiveness of the bridge, rather than its practicality, makes many people forget that all aspects of the proposal require careful consideration. The displacement of millions of cubic meters of earth, silt and shale would disrupt the marine balance of the strait and could lead to the depletion of fish stocks, thus jeopardizing the livelihoods of a large part of the local population. which depends heavily on fishing. Furthermore, the groups argue, the benefits of road and rail traffic, in monetary or time terms, could never recoup the investment of billions of euros without considering the millions already spent. These groups propose to use these funds for major investments in rail, road and ferry infrastructure in order to limit waiting times and reduce crossing times between the two coasts.
Until the end of the 19th century, large transport ships from Sicily to the Italian mainland sailed mainly between Palermo and Naples or Salerno, in part because of the risks associated with crossing the strait to Calabria and the non-existence road or rail networks once there. The first ferry service between the Calabrian and Sicilian coasts dates from 1896, planned by engineer Antonino Calabretta. The excitement caused by the start of construction of the Golden Gate in San Francisco in 1933 prompted Calabretta to present the same year his project to build a bridge between Punta Faro in Sicily and Punta Pezzo in Calabria. The project was approved, but the outbreak of World War II in 1939 put construction on hold.
And that was to become the model of the bridge over the strait to the present day. Politicians are well aware that planning this particular bridge is indeed no small decision. It has been at the back of most debates on the modernization of the mezzogiorno for over fifty years. Millions have been spent and pockets filled with project ideas that are intermittently recycled during election campaigns. Special surveys and studies are put in place and money is poured into them just so that they are often casually dismissed until next time. In 2006, the Italian Parliament voted to abandon the bridge project by 272 votes to 234, but in 2008, with the election of a government led by Silvio Berlusconi, the bridge once again became a top priority. In 2012, a comedian and self-proclaimed Italian politician, Beppe Grillo, literally swam the strait to prove the bridge was unnecessary. People then said he had in fact proven otherwise.
For those who like acronyms, the TEN-T (The Trans-European Transprt Network) is also cited as the reason for the construction of the bridge. Or not to build it. This would make Sicily a more integral part of the EU’s ever-evolving network of roads, railways, airports, water and telecommunications. In 2020, Giuseppe Conte timidly raised the possibility of studying the feasibility of a bridge and it was hinted that part of the Recovery Fund could be invested in this large-scale project. An EU condition, however, renders this assumption unfounded. The project is to be completed by 2026. Unlikely with the history of the bridge.
Cities directly involved in the planning of the bridge
For readers who want a clearer picture of Calabria, you can take a look at an article on the subject published some time ago.
For travelers coming from the north, the first point of passage to Sicily is Villa San Giovanni, a railway, road and maritime terminal town that has developed around spin-off activities linked to a transport hub. In 1908, it was a city of about 7,000 inhabitants, 10% of whom perished in the earthquake. Reggio Calabria is the final destination of the toe on the main north-south motorway and rail lines. Regular ferries run from Reggio to Messina in Sicily.
Despite all the benefits that the bridge would bring, it would seem that the populations of these three cities are as divided on the issue as the Italian Parliament was in 2006. But they are mostly indifferent. Talking about building a bridge is precisely that – just talk – and it doesn’t excite anyone. It has been going on for so long that the older citizens of Messina remember hearing, as children, that “they are going to build a bridge and the ‘continent’ will be connected to us.” The continent then needed its prosperous neighbor, Sicily, more than the other way around. Whether or not that has changed today is for another discussion.
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