SAIS Next Europe

« Previous Post | Next Post »

Italy's 'Bridge to Nowhere'

By Annie Magnus

At a time when the airline industry is crumbling in Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is focusing on other means of connections. He wants to build a bridge - not that we haven't heard that from politicians before. But while others eventually say, 'thanks, but no thanks,' Berlusconi smiles widely and says yes. He has given the go-ahead to start building the world's longest suspension bridge. It will be a grandiose national project. It will also be to Italy what was snubbed in Alaska: a bridge to nowhere.

This one will stretch more than two miles over the stormy Strait of Messina and link the toe of the boot-shaped Italian mainland to its closest island, Sicily. It will connect one poor region to an even poorer island. But is the project worthwhile?

Supporters of the idea believe it will help Sicily transport its fruit and vegetable production to Calabria at a faster and more efficient pace and thereby help its poor economic state. But critics claim that money needed to construct the suspension should first be spent on proper infrastructure in Sicily before the bridge is seriously discussed. If the government concentrated instead on making roads more efficient, critics argue, truck drivers would be able to reach the coast quicker and reduce the overall time for transportation to get to the mainland - at a fraction of the bridge's cost.

It's no small cost, either: an estimated $7.85 billion. The Italian economy, doing no better than most other economies these days, cannot support the project through government funds alone. Help to finance the plan will have to come from other sources. Connections are once again a key word here. Berlusconi has connections in a variety of sectors. They are rich friends who would be willing to donate some of their money towards this project - donations, speculators believe, that may not be all that clean. And funds, they likewise suspect, that will return to dirty pockets once revenue comes in return. It could very well help improve economic conditions for parts of the Sicilian population, yes, but it's doubtful that it will help those who need it most. It seems ironic, then, that at a time when the government is supposedly trying to crack down on mafia, it wants to build a bridge that will lead directly into their hands.

Paradoxes loom high in Italy these days. This is politics under Silvio Berlusconi.

Annie Magnus is a graduate student in the IR/Conflict Management program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.

Email the Author | Email This Post | Del.icio.us | Digg | Facebook

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (12)

1991km Author Profile Page:

To add to my comment: I hope the bridge includes a pedetrian / bicycle right of way, but everything I've read indicates that may not be the case. What a shame it would be to not be able to stroll across the strait.

1991km Author Profile Page:

Build the bridge! Once it's done it will be in place for the next few centuries. Trains will no longer have to be broken up and placed on barges, commutes across the Strait of Messina will only take a few minutes - no more waits for ferries. The scale of this project is like that of the 19th century Brooklyn Bridge in New York or the 20th century Golden Gate in San Francisco. The 21st century Strait of Messina Bridge could be the base for which improvements come to that area of Italy. Tourism will soar. It's well documented how much more efficiently vehicles move across a bridge under thier own power as opposed to being placed on ferries that consume several times more fuel for the same trip. A bridge will eventually be built there. The technology already exists. It's something I want to see in my lifetime! What a sight it will be to see a Ferrari or a Lamborghini zip across the three kilometer mainspan (tower to tower)in under a minute.

Patrick Shawn O'Donnell

RPR01 Author Profile Page:

Racist! Racist! Racist! To make the comment that a bridge linking Italy to Sicily is "to nowhere" is an insult to all Italians world wide. I am a Sicilian American and am deeply outraged. The media in this country,is blatantly anti-Italian and anti-Italian American. For over 120 years, racist propaganda, such as this, has proliferated unchecked. Sicilians are by nature individualists and not "letter writers" so racists like this women have absolutely no qualms or concerns bashing, degrading, defaming, and spreading total false statements. The Washington Post should be ashamed.

vbriani Author Profile Page:

Please check the railway network in Sicily and Calabria here (from the national railways website):

http://www.rfi.it/cms-file/allegati/rfi/rete_esercizio.pdf

Consider that from Palermo to Agrigento it takes more than three hours (probably at around 50 km/hour).

Now, do you really think it's a good idea to build a 8 billions bridge to a place where the railway network is the same Garibaldi used? Wouldn't it be cheaper and more useful to modernize and expand the railways before building the bridge?

It's just another huge propaganda stunt by Mr. Berlusconi. And we keep falling for it.

grispa Author Profile Page:

I agree the situation is somewhat more complicated than this, but it is also my opinion this bridge is a HUGE waste of resources we cannot afford to waste.

Initial estimates indicate the bridge may not only be impossible to build (there are several issues, both structural and seismological), but should last little more than 100 years. Consider Italy is filled with Roman-era bridges still intact and used.

Moreover, both Sicily and Calabria (the two regions separated by the Strait of Messina) have a very poor infrastructure, both in the interior and on the coast.
Right now, most of the time-sensitive product of the island (fruit, vegetables) are transported to the mainland via air plane. Creating railway lines capable of competing with this delivery method would be surely positive, but extremely expensive. And it is not granted that the bridge would benefit at all.

Last, but not least, this would be such an enormous job, expanding to so many contractors and sub-contractors that it would be simply inevitable to pour unbelievable amounts of cash in the pockets of organized crime (aka: Mafia).

Is then worth going trough the trouble?
In my opinion: perhaps. But not today.
Today, it would be just a monument to Berlusconi.
Made with taxpayers money.

Paolo Gris, Belluno, Italy

PS: Notes by LINCOLNDECUSATIS are right.

g_santoboni Author Profile Page:

Not even going all that far across the web, even the Wikipedia article on the Strait of Messina Bridge has a more in depth description of the situation.
I think the comparison between the Gravina Island Bridge and the Strait of Messina Bridge is ill conceived because the notorious "bridge to nowhere" had no demand to justify its construction (the bridge itself should have "induced" the demand), while on the Strait of Messina Bridge there is present-time demand for its crossing, though not enough to make it profitable as of now.

spolifemo Author Profile Page:

What an ill-informed and simplistic article. I lived in Italy most of my life and moved to the US five years ago. Furthermore, I am no fan of Silvio Berlusconi. But smart and honest people disagree on the merits of such bridge. In any case, calling it a bridge to nowhere is preposterous. There are many blogs out there where people can write all kind of absurdities, but this is the WP!

lincolndecusatis Author Profile Page:

There were a couple errors I noticed in the above article:
1) the Strait of Messina is not stormy, in fact the sun never stops shining there.
2) Sicily is NOT poorer than Calabria, in fact its the other way around.
3) The Camorra and A' Sistema in the suburbs of Napoli (please reference the highly publicized trash crisis), and probably even the 'Ndrangeta in Calabria are stronger right now than the Mafia in Sicily. Building a bridge to Sicily wouldn't be "leading right into their hands".
4) Anyone who has spent hours inside a train car without air conditioning in the hull of a rusted ferry for three hours trying to cross the Strait of Messina would definitely welcome the idea of a bridge to ease the pain.

We all know that Berlusconi is a corrupt politician who is more mafia than the Mafia itself, but this isn't the worst idea he has come up with.....

mt1962 Author Profile Page:

But SNL626 provides no analysis to agree (or disagree) with. Rather, he merely states conclusions with no support, and utterly fails to even take on the facts and arguments presented by Ms. Magnus. Simply having lived somewhere for a long time and being married to someone who still does, isn't quite sufficient to make one an "expert" that entitles one to dismiss a well-supported argument so flippantly. Moreover, SNL626 provides no basis to support the abstract claim that the building of a "wonderful" bridge can "elevate" a nation's stature in any way that would matter to anyone who isn't standing in that nation, beholding the architectural marvel and beaming, "che bello!" before checking the stuctural integrity of one's shoe-lifts and making sure one's hair-plugs are still holding firm. Even if the rest of the world were to notice Italy's pretty bridge, is there any imperical evidence showing it would be worth the cost? SNL626 doesn't seem to have any at his fingertips, but perhaps in the very small social circle of bridge-envy experts such documentation isn't needed. Finally, in his embarrassingly sexist send-off line, SNL626 reveals that he, himself, has a bit of road to cover, including perhaps a couple of huge bridges, to catch up to civilized levels of chauvanism-shedding (although I understand such evolution has come more slowly in some parts of ther world).

snap1 Author Profile Page:

I have spent the first half of my life in Italy, and the second half in the US, and I can attest to the poor quality of this article and the stupidity of the title. The article is long on sneering ("this is politics under Silvio Berlusconi") and short of facts. Let me fill in some The bridge has been the subject of countless economic and engineering studies in post-war Italy. Almost any administration has toyed with the idea and then given up. The reason was not that the bridge led to nowhere, but that most government coalitions in Italy are fragile, and they are focused on short-term goals. It is pointless to discuss how $7Bn of taxpayers' money would be *best* spent. I think that no economist would deny that Sicily, and Italy, would be better off with the bridge. Calling it a "bridge to nowhere is a form of journalistic opportunism.

vanessae Author Profile Page:

I agree with SNL626. Sicily is certainly not "nowhere".

snl626 Author Profile Page:

Annie, I'm sorry and with no disrespect, I strongly disagree with your analysis. This bridge, if constructed, is nowhere "bridge to nowwhere." I consider myself an expert and very knowledgeable of Italian society...lived there for over 3 decades. I traversed these two islands many times. My wife is Italian, lives in Salerno south.

This is a DREAM project. Surpasses the wonder of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Japan bridge, and any other wonderful bridges we now have in the world. this will elevate Italy a notch or two in world standings but, mainly, finally connect the country of Italy in one continuous north-south island (at least, until they build a bridge to Sardinia).

So, no disrespect to your 1st year at John Hopkins, but babe, you've got a long way to go.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.