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Berlusconi resurrects Sicily bridge plan

March 6, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 6 2009

Reviving an ancient dream to link Sicily with the Italian mainland, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government on Friday resurrected a controversial project to build the world’s largest suspension bridge as part of an infrastructure package designed to revive the economy. A government commission approved public spending of €1.3bn on the bridge out of a total estimated cost of €6.1bn, with the balance to be raised by the private sector.

Mr Berlusconi’s previous administration had tried to launch the project but it was canned in 2006 by the incoming centre-left government as too expensive, unnecessary and liable to become a windfall of sub-contracts for the Sicilian Mafia and, on the other side of the sea, the ’Ndrangheta of Calabria.

But last year’s sweeping election victory by Mr Berlusconi’s coalition – and the rout of the Greens in parliament – cleared the way again, with an economic slump as deep as the Straits of Messina providing the argument. Mr Berlusconi also has important political allies in Sicily and a strong cabinet presence from the island, with Sicilian ministers of environment and justice.

Renato Schifani, speaker of the Senate and a Sicilian, yesterday declared the project to be of enormous importance for the whole of Italy’s depressed south.

Shares in Impregilio, the construction company already awarded the project, rose 0.5 per cent on the Milan exchange while the broader market fell 3.8 per cent.

Critics point out that a highway to Calabria has still not been finished after decades of construction and scandal.

The suspension bridge would have the world’s longest main span of 3,300 metres. The area is prone to earthquakes, high winds and even tidal waves, but project managers Stretto di Messina say that these problems are all surmountable.

However, Fabrizio Antonioli, a geologist, has disputed the viability of the project as it stands. In a published paper he argued that it did not take into account the movements of the two land masses. Southern Calabria – the “toe” of Italy – is rising at a rate of 2mm a year, while Sicily is going up by just 0.5mm. GPS data show that Calabria is also moving north-east while Sicily is shifting to the north-west, the gap widening by 3mm a year.

For centuries, statesmen, inventors and poets have dreamed of a safe crossing over the waters where nearly 3,000 years ago the Greek poet Homer wrote of the monsters Scylla and Charybdis attacking Odysseus.

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