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The longest bridge in the world could transform Sicily. But not if mafia and earthquakes get in the way

Rome (CNN) There’s a famous saying in Italian – similar to the English-speakers’ use of “when hell freezes over” – which translates as “I’ll do it when the bridge to Messina ends.”

The dream of a bridge connecting the mainland to Sicily across the Strait of Messina dates back to Roman times, when consul Metellus strapped barrels and wood together to transport 100 war elephants from Carthage to Rome in 252 BC, according to the writings of Pliny the Elder.

Since then, various plans have come and gone, including the short-lived idea of ​​tunnel-like water under a bridge.

If built, the bridge across the Strait of Messina would span 2 miles (3.2 km) and would be The longest suspension bridge in the world.

Now the massive engineering project may indeed materialize, thanks to a decree by Giorgia Meloni’s government last month after Transport Minister Matteo Salvini revived a plan pushed forward when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister.

In 2006, the bid to build the bridge was awarded to a consortium led by the Italian company Salini Impregilo, now called WeBuild. When Berlusconi’s government fell that year, plans to build the bridge collapsed with his government after the next prime minister, Romano Prodi, deemed it a waste of money and a hazard to the environment.

Since then, many governments have tried to revive it, and the current ruling coalition led by Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi has put it on the list of campaign promises. When Salvini became transport minister, he made it his priority, betting his legacy on the bridge.

WeBuild, which still has the bid on paper, has sued the government for breach of contract after the project was paused, but remains the company most likely to get the job back despite “expressions of interest from around the world, including China,” Salvini told the Foreign Press Association. in Rome in March when he presented the plan.

“Those who won the 2006 bid are the ones most likely to continue with the final version of the project,” he said, without naming WeBuild directly.

WeBuild’s Director of Engineering, Michele Longo, was invited to Parliament to speak about the revived plan on April 18.

“The bridge over the Strait of Messina is a project that can start immediately. Once the contract is returned and updated, the project can start,” Lungo told parliament. “The executive design is expected to take eight months, while the time required to build the bridge will be just over six years.”

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The project cost 4.5 billion euros ($4.96 billion) for the bridge alone and 6.75 billion euros ($7.4 billion) for the infrastructure to support it on both sides, including upgrading roads and railways, building stations and carrying out preliminary works. on land and seabed to “minimize hydrogeological risks” during construction, according to the plan submitted to the Ministry of Transport.

Since 1965, 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) of public money has already been spent on feasibility studies, according to the Italian Treasury. Salvini is fond of saying that “it will cost more not to build the bridge than to build it”.

Fault lines and mobs

The plans may seem very advanced but the challenges are complex.

Southern Italy is prone to corruption with two major organized crime gangs – the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra – excelling at infiltrating construction projects.

The recent arrest of the boss of Cosa Nostra Like Matteo Messina Denaro after 30 years of lame in Sicily a victory.

Denaro was against building the bridge, as were some other mob bosses, according to testimony from informants who contributed to Denaro’s arrest, in part because organized crime syndicates fueled poverty and underdevelopment.

Despite this, concerns remain. An anti-mafia study from the Nomos Center think tank, published 20 years ago and now updated, warns that parts of the project, such as logistics, may fall under criminal control, as well as the potential for local mobs to demand protection money.

Salvini played down concerns. He recently told Parliament “I am not afraid of criminal infiltration, we will be able to guarantee that the best Italian, European and international companies work there. There will be oversight bodies that we work on for every euro invested in it. The bridge.”

There are also geophysical problems that may be difficult to contend with.

WeBuild has released renderings of the proposed Brthe Bridge over the Strait of Messina.
The government says it will provide a major boost to the local economy, but the plan faces many challenges.
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The Strait of Messina lies along a fault line where a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in 1908 killed more than 100,000 people and triggered tsunamis that devastated coastal areas on both sides of the waters in Calabria and Sicily. It remains the deadliest seismic event in Europe to date.

The waters are also turbulent. The currents are so strong that they often rip seaweed off the sea floor, and they change every six hours, according to NASA, which notes that the strong wave patterns can be seen from space.

Under WeBuild’s original plan, the only one currently under consideration since bids have not, and may not have, opened, the bridge deck would be built to withstand winds of up to 300km/h – and could remain open to traffic with winds of up to 150km. per hour.

There will be three lanes for cars in each direction – two for traffic and one for emergencies, with train lines in the middle. Under the current plan, 6,000 cars and trucks could pass each hour, and 200 trains could pass each day.

The bridge will be approximately 74 meters above sea level and allow a 600 meter long navigational canal, allowing cargo ships and even the tallest cruise liners to pass through. It will also be designed to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, slightly more powerful than the devastating earthquake of 1908.

Longo told parliament that the construction phase alone would contribute €2.9 billion to the national GDP and employ 100,000 people and 300 resources, adding that “most of these people will come from the regions of Sicily and Calabria where unemployment is high.”

On the geographic challenges, Longo told CNN that “it’s one of the most dynamic straits anywhere between depths and currents, but it’s also one of the most studied. There are millions of pages of studies devoted to this area. We’ve read it all.” Getting involved in organized crime “Nothing is impossible,” he said, “but it’s low risk.”

Destroyer of wildlife

Environmentalists have long argued that the bridge would be destructive to the terrain and wildlife.

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“In the Strait of Messina, a very important place of transit for marine birds and mammals, one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world is concentrated,” says a spokesman for the Legambiente group, adding that the bridge – during and after construction – would disrupt migratory routes between Africa and Europe.

The World Wildlife Fund has also campaigned against reviving the project. “The entire Strait of Messina area is a protected area under the EU Habitats Directive,” Stefano Lenzi, Director of Institutional Relations at WWF, said in a statement. Back in 2006, before the plan was shelved, the group was preparing to file a lawsuit to try and stop it for violating EU protected areas.

Salvini unveiled the plan for the bridge in March.

Environmental groups contend that the half-hour ferry is the least turbulent route.

Salvini insists the post-bridge impact on the economy will be indisputably high, saying cargo ships from Asia could dock in Sicily and those goods could be transported on high-speed trains to Europe, once the high-speed railways are built in Sicily — although currently not available.

Public opinion on both sides of the strait remains mixed, with those in a position to prosper by increasing trade and facilitating tourism in general to support it and those who don’t mind keeping Sicily largely isolated against it.

The bridge has never been so close to being built as it is now, after Meloni signed the decree to pave the way for concrete plans. The decree will become law in June, and Salvini said he hopes to start working by July 2024.

The Strait of Messina has long been associated with troubled waters. Homer created a den of sea monsters for Skilla and Charybdis for a reason. And however the lonely monsters may be environmental and criminal, there is no doubt that no matter when this happens, the dream of some to build the bridge to Messina will not rest until it is over.