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Bridge over troubled water -

(EMAILWIRE.COM, March 13, 2009 ) Italy - When you have been waiting 2,000 years, what’s another few years? Talk of the town in Italy at the moment is the revival of plans to build a highly controversial suspension bridge stretching from the toe of Italy’s boot to Sicily. The bridge is something that leaders have wanted since Roman times, and was brought up again in 2001, but still hasn’t had the final sign off. Could that be about to change?

The bridge, which would stretch for more than two miles across the Messina Strait and link Calabria in mainland Italy with the island of Sicily, would be be the longest in the world.

In 2001, plans were announced, but they ended up being scrapped by Italy’s former centre-left Government a couple of years ago.

Come 2004, and Italian President Silvio Berlusconi took the project under his wing, inviting contractor bids with a view to begin building in 2005, but the plans were once again scrapped by the succeeding administration.

It currently takes just 20 minutes to cross the two miles of water separating mainland Italy from Sicily on board a ferry.

Now that Mr Berlusconi is back in power, the idea has been reignited as part of a huge £16 billion public works programme to create new jobs and help to boost the economy.

As well as the bridge, the programme includes new urban rail networks, motorway expansion, prison and school construction, and a flood barrier system in Venice. The bridge is expected to take between five and 10 years to construct.

The programme was announced late last week after being approved by the cabinet and various Government departments. Funding is coming from a mix of public and private resources and the new bridge stands to provide a big boost to tourism in Sicily.

There are many that are strongly opposed to the construction of the bridge – some think that it will be unsafe as it will span a busy shipping lane and will have to withstand high winds. The bridge could also increase traffic on Italy’s already overcrowded highways.

Secondly, many locals feared that large amounts of tax payers’ money would be siphoned off by the Sicilian and Calabrian mafias, which control most public works projects in the south of Italy.

Others are criticizing the bridge as they are saying that it is not the right time to be looking to build a large scale project in the current economic climate.

Environmental activist are concerned that the bridge could be extremely damaging for the many rare birds and wildlife that live in the area.

The bridge pylon that would be built in Sicily will go so deep it will also affect the delicate water table that feeds the natural lakes of Faro and Ganzirri near the shore.

Sicilian local Sergio Anna, who was born and brought up in Messina, said, “Many Sicilians are concerned about the plans for the bridge as Sicily has fallen victim to several big ideas that the Italians started and never finished – including the incomplete Salerno - Reggio Calabria motorway - and there is worry the bridge could go the same way.

“We are also worried that the bridge would ruin the look of our stunning coastline, which is one of the main attractions of Sicily.

“The majority of Sicilians feel that the money would be far better spent on improving the coastline and making that appeal to tourists, rather than spending money on the bridge.

“Sicily is also affected by earthquakes. The last one, in 1908, almost destroyed Messina, killing thousands of people and could be extremely dangerous were history to repeat itself and people were travelling on the bridge.

“I don’t think there is any truth in the mafia rumour –that sounds like scaremongering to me,” added Mr Anna.

So, whilst the list of potential benefits seems long – Sicily’s economy is penalised by shipping costs and delays, European tourists are deterred by long waits for crowded ferries, and Sicilians face a long journey to reach the toe of the Italian boot just a few miles distant – there remains much opposition to its construction.

Time will tell whether Italy and Sicily will indeed be linked, but, for now, the gulf between the supporters and opposition seems impossible to bridge.

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