A bridge to Sicily: Castle in the air or solution to Italy's 'Southern Question'? – Courthouse News Service
Once again, an Italian government is examining the possibility of building a humungous bridge across the Strait of Messina, testing the boundaries of engineering and reigniting a debate over how best to pull southern Italy out of its economic blues.
MESSINA, Italy (CN) — Can a nature-defying bridge across the Strait of Messina solve one of Italy’s oldest, most basic and seemingly intractable problems: The stagnation and poverty of its southern regions?
The divide between wealthy northern Italy and the poorest lands south of Rome – collectively known as the Mezzogiorno – has been the subject of debate ever since Italy was unified in the 1860s. It’s even a branch of study known as “the Southern Question.”
Instead of narrowing, the gap continues to grow and a sense of endless frustration and futility hangs over places like Messina, an ancient port city that gives the strait its name.
Messina is like so many other places in Italy’s deep south: Layered with history, broken by modernity, deeply scarred by natural and manmade catastrophes, fiercely proud, incomprehensibly poor, full of life and full of cracked concrete and decrepit structures.
Messina knows about the problems that can come with big concrete projects, as is being contemplated with the bridge.
For example, the autostrada – Italy’s equivalent to an interstate highway – that runs through the city has been interrupted for months due to ongoing work to repair crumbling concrete spans that scamper between mountain flanks hovering behind the city. It’s an ominous reminder that if a huge bridge across the Strait of Messina is built it too could become a maintenance nightmare.
Since at least the 1950s, national politicians in Rome have linked improving the fortunes of the South with the idea of building a bridge across the strait that divides Sicily from the mainland.
A bridge, its backers say, would finally bring Sicily, the Mezzogiorno’s largest and most populous region with 5 million people, into the modern age and position the Mediterranean’s biggest island once again at the center of European trade routes.
A bridge also complements a long-term priority for the European Union to get goods moving faster between Sicily’s ports and northern Europe.
As it is, cars, trucks, trains, goods and passengers are taken across the strait by a non-stop flotilla of boats and ferries, but this inevitably leads to delays and at the worst of times, such as during the busy summer months, the 30-minute ferry transit can take up to two hours or more.
The big picture idea is that if a bridge is built then the disgorging of container ships coming through the Suez Canal from Asia could take place in Sicily rather than in the ports of northern Europe. High-speed trains would then move the cargo across the Messina bridge to the rest of Europe.
In September, the Italian government relaunched the possibility of erecting a bridge to cross the Messina strait at its narrowest point, a 1.9-mile stretch between Calabria and Sicily. A committee is expected to make a recommendation this spring on its feasibility.
According to many scientists and engineers, it would be one of the world’s most complicated and impressive bridges ever built.
But Sicilians aren’t holding their breath about ever seeing it constructed.
Over the decades, Italy has spent about 900 million euros (roughly $1 billion) on engineering studies and engaged in years of rancorous debate over it to the point that the bridge has become known as the “ponte della discordia” and “ponte dei sospiri” – the “bridge of discord” and the “bridge of sighs.”
Today, it seems as elusive as ever. Bring up the bridge idea and Sicilians on both sides of the debate throw up their hands.
Bridge supporters despair because decades of stagnation have compelled Sicily’s brightest to depart for jobs in northern Italy or outside the country altogether; all the while, the island’s industries languish. They argue a bridge could only help the island turn around its fortunes.
Opponents, though, lament that too much energy and money has been spent already on what they see as an absurd project. They complain that roads, schools and towns across the Mezzogiorno are falling apart and need to be prioritized. One Sicilian woman put it this way: “Why build a bridge and then end up on an island full of potholes?”
On a recent summer evening, diners at sidewalk tables at a restaurant in a rundown part of Messina offered mostly negative views about the bridge to a Courthouse News reporter.
“With all the money they’ve spent on studies, they could have already made the bridge,” a diner remarked caustically as he sat with a friend.
“The bridge will never get done,” a waiter added, leaning on the wall at the front door.
“All the money will go into the pockets of the mafia,” another diner grumbled. “Political corruption, that’s the problem.”
Sicilians are saturated in stories about vast sums disappearing on public works projects infiltrated by the mafia and the Messina bridge would, many fear, become another money spigot for crooks.
As it happened on that particular evening, a couple of bridge engineers were eating at the restaurant and entered the discussion. They were in Sicily to inspect highway bridges following the catastrophic collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa in 2018, which killed 43 people. The Genoa structure was a cable-stayed concrete viaduct on an autostrada and seen as an engineering feat in its day when it opened in 1967.
“The Messina bridge,” one of the engineers said, “can never be built because it is geologically not possible. Messina lies on fault lines and Sicily and the mainland are moving away from each other. It can’t be built.”
The idea of erecting a bridge across the narrow strait has been a dream of kings and engineers for centuries. As long ago as 251 B.C., the Romans constructed what may have been a sort of bridge using barrels and rafts to transport to Rome numerous elephants won in battle in Sicily against Carthaginians in the First Punic War.
But this channel between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas is legendarily dangerous. As told by ancient writers, including Homer and Thucydides, mariners believed the waters were inhabited by the ravenous six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool-creating Charybidis, monsters that devoured sailors and ships.
The ancients feared the channel for good reasons. It sits on an active tectonic area between the African and European continental shelves, making it particularly risky to build a bridge here.
It doesn’t take much to understand the risk when considering Messina’s city center is built atop about 16 feet of rubble from two horrific earthquakes. The first one took place in 1783 and then in 1908 much of the city was flattened by a 7.1 earthquake centered in the strait. It was the strongest quake ever recorded by Italian instruments and caused a tidal wave that destroyed Messina’s waterfront.
Allied bombing of German and Italian armies and navies during World War II only added to Messina’s miseries and parts of the city remain scarred, and still not rebuilt, from the aerial pounding.
Other geographic difficulties for bridge engineers are the extreme depth of the strait and the strong and changing sea currents between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas.
Still, despite these obvious challenges, top engineers are confident a bridge can be safely built and have advised the government to proceed.
Italy first began to seriously study how to build a permanent link across the strait in 1969 when the Ministry of Public Works issued a call for ideas.
Dozens of proposals – some of them wild – were presented. They included complex cable-stayed bridges, underground tunnels, floating tunnels, bridges built atop floating artificial islands and massive suspension bridges. Titans of Italian industry got involved too and over time engineers concluded that the best option was to build a suspension bridge.
After years of studies and polemics, by 2010 initial construction work began on the bridge under the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and a longtime champion of the bridge. But as the European Union’s eurozone fell into a massive debt crisis, the project was discontinued in 2012. It’s been on ice ever since.
There are few people more in favor of the bridge than Anthony Greco, a greying Messina businessman, local television personality with a show called “The City that Doesn’t Lament” and president of a city center historical association.
“I see the glass as half full, not half empty,” he said, swiveling in his office chair between talking about the merits of the bridge and showing designs and videos of the potential structure on his computer screen.
For many Italians like him, the country’s inability to agree on building the bridge reflects Italy’s political and economic impotence.
“Why is it that nowhere in the world is it asked: ‘Should we do the bridge or shouldn’t we?’ Why is it only in Messina?” he said, sitting in his office in central Messina. “In the rest of the world, these debates don’t open up. Around the world, bridges unite people, but in Messina they divide people.”
He listed other mighty bridges and structures around the world – the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tower Bridge in London – and said they mark progress and are seen as marvels of human ingenuity.
“The bridge would bring jobs to Messina, tourism. The real estate market – at rock bottom at the moment – would rise up,” he said. “Messina would be resurrected with this bridge.”
In Greco’s vision, the flocks of tourists who come to Italy each year would have a new must-see on their itineraries: the spectacular bridge of Messina.
“Do you know how many people would take a boat ride under the bridge? A tour over the bridge in an airplane?” he said. “Why is it that when we go to London we all do a selfie with the bridge? But here in Messina the bridge is ugly.”
“Think about all the people who come to look at the beauty of Florence,” he added. “They would also say: ‘Let’s go look at the biggest bridge in the world, let’s go to Sicily.’”
He shook his head. “Messina’s worst enemies are Messinese. They are myopic. Our children have to go off to work in Australia. How many would work here in tourism if there was a bridge? Just think how many B&Bs, bars, pizzerias would open if there was a bridge.”
In truth, many local politicians, including the city’s mayor and representatives in the national parliament, are in favor of the bridge as are many Sicilian political and business leaders.
But there are strong opponents too in Sicily and elsewhere, especially among environmentalists who oppose the bridge because they see it as a big hunk of concrete that would mar the natural landscape, encourage even more road traffic, endanger wildlife such as birds and end up as a risk from collapse during an earthquake.
Those objections, Greco argued, are unconvincing.
“The greens should be the first ones to say ‘yes’ to the bridge because ships pollute, and instead they say ‘no,’” he said, referring to the goal of moving goods from Asia onto high-speed trains in Sicilian ports and thereby cutting out days-long cargo ship voyages to northern European ports.
“From the perspective of the natural landscape, the bridge would be beautiful,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid I had a poster of the San Francisco bridge. And I still have this big poster.”
As for fears that constructing the bridge will just end up enriching the mafia, he said that logic leads to a conclusion that Sicily and the rest of the south shouldn’t be given public money to build schools, hospitals, railroads and whatnot.
“There’s the mafia, so let’s not do anything anymore,” he said with irony. “That is a long-held nonsense.”
What about the threat from earthquakes? That too, he said, is a baseless fear. Engineers, he argued, believe the bridge – designed as a suspension bridge – would hold up even if the strongest earthquake were to hit.
“Half of Italy would be destroyed, but the bridge would be standing,” he claimed.
As for funding the bridge, he said Italy and the EU have the money and that it would easily pay for itself. When the project got underway under Berlusconi’s government, it was estimated to cost 8.5 billion euros ($9.6 billion), though many believed the costs would have ended up far higher.
For others, making a bridge now makes no sense because Italy is crippled with debt and there are so many other infrastructure needs in the southern regions.
“The big question mark is: Can a state like the Italian one, with all the debt it has, with all the problems it has, finance such a work?” said Edoardo Zanchini, the vice president of Legambiente, a national environmental group fighting against the bridge, in a telephone interview. “No one in the world has built a public work as complex as this.”
With the EU not showing interest in financing the project, he said Italy is facing the dilemma of footing the bill for an endeavor whose eventual cost is unclear.
“It’s been 30 years of talking about how the bridge would pay for itself,” he said. “But it has become evident that this is no longer feasible.”
Rather than building a bridge, he said Italy should invest in speeding up the crossing of the strait by improving the ferry system that moves traffic across the strait now.
He said bridge supporters have spent decades wrongly arguing that the solution to the South’s transportation woes is building the bridge. Instead of wasting funds on bridge studies, he said Italy needs to upgrade trains and roads throughout the South.
“It’s a great way to concentrate all the attention on one big thing rather than confronting the real issues,” he said.
“The 900 million euros [spent so far on the bridge] have gone to consultants, office jobs,” he said. “With 900 million euros, so many other useful works would have been possible in Sicily.”
Emanuele Felice, an economics professor at the University of Chieti-Pescara and author of books about the Southern Question, said the Messina bridge should only be built once the rest of the region’s transportation system has been upgraded.
“It should a point of arrival,” he said, speaking by telephone. “But the bridge isn’t spoken about in this way, it’s invoked as some kind of magic wand.”
He lamented that it takes hours to go by train between Sicily’s major cities – Palermo, Catania, Messina – and that the island, like the rest of southern Italy, needs to make high-speed trains a top priority.
Once high-speed trains are running in Calabria and Sicily, only then does it make sense to build the Messina bridge, he said.
“Today I’d put at the top of the Mezzogiorno’s transportation problems high-speed trains,” he said.
“However, often the same people who say that it’s useless to do high-speed trains because there are so few passengers are the same ones who say the bridge is needed,” he said. “There is no economic logic in all of this.”
“If we want to do more infrastructure in the South, let’s do it,” he added. “Then at the end of that, we can also do the bridge. Doing only the bridge is a mistake.”
For too long southern Italy and its many problems have been neglected by national politicians in Italy, he said.
The South is slated to get about 80 billion euros ($90.5 billion) in recovery funds from the EU’s massive coronavirus aid programs, but Felice said the regions will need much more to stop the demographic and economic declines.
Aboard the ferries that cross the busy strait, opinions are divided too.
Standing with her family on a recent ferry crossing over to Calabria, Anna Fazio, a 46-year-old tourist guide from Messina, rejected the idea of the bridge.
“I think it is better to leave nature as it is,” she said. “It would destroy one of the most interesting environments in Europe, the Strait of Messina. This is a place of charm and legends. Building a bridge, in my opinion, would destroy this.”
A brisk wind blew as she talked and looked out at the strait’s glistening waters and the steep mountains of Calabria. She said the ferry ride provides a pleasant moment of reflection for people.
“We have already enough cement in Messina and even in Calabria,” she said. “Think of the historical events: the earthquake, the tsunami, the reconstruction. I just think it is better to leave nature as it is found.”
She added: “I can’t say my view is the best, but I’m a nature lover. So I think we have a mission; we have done already so much damage. We need to preserve beauty.”
On another ferry, this one bound from Calabria to Messina, Giovanni Falsaperla took a very different view. He’s among the roughly 2,000 foot passengers who take a ferry every day to commute for work and school and go shopping. He lives in Messina and works at a credit business in Calabria.
“In 50 years, I think there will be a bridge,” he said, sitting on a bench inside the vessel’s seating area.
“The question is whether they will build it in the first 10 years or the last 10 years,” he said with irony.
So many Sicilians are by nature “separatists” and he said there’s a lot of resistance on the island to being united to the mainland.
But he said a bridge would boost the economy by easing links between the South and the rest of Italy while relying on ferries is antiquated and inadequate for a modern economy.
“Look at Turkey,” he said. “On the straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles there are at least five bridges and two built in the last 10 years.”
He sees Sicily and a bridge across the Messina Strait as playing pivotal roles in the future as trade between Europe and Africa grows.
“China is seeking to invade with its New Silk Road,” he said, referring to a global investment and development scheme China is pushing, formally known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
The United States and other rich Western countries are pushing to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative with their own global investment schemes. This program was announced last year at the G-7 meeting in England and the European Union unveiled its own plans recently.
“If we continue to be a Europe divided in two – between countries of Central Europe and those in the South – then the bridge won’t get done,” he said. “If we want to become an alternative to the Silk Road, we need to build a bridge here.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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