OVER TROUBLED WATERS

In ancient times, sailors lived in fear of the violent and treacherous passage between Calabria on the Italian mainland and the island of Sicily. Homer wrote of a whirlpool that swallowed ships whole, and a six-headed monster lying in wait for sailors foolish enough to make the crossing. The concerns have changed, but the general sentiment hasn't. Nowadays, the road to Calabria's ferry dock is a notorious smugglers' route and is known for carjackings, road rage and murder. The ferryboats are decrepit. And the strait's fierce waters still on occasion swallow a ship or two.

Now the Italian government seems poised to leapfrog these troubles by building a gleaming new suspension bridge. At five kilometers, the Messina Strait Bridge would be a modern engineering marvel. Weighing in at 54,630 tons, the mammoth structure would span 3.3 kilometers of water, beating the two-kilometer record currently held by Japan's Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. It would also fulfill a campaign promise by Italy's ruling center-right coalition to empower the mezzogiorno, Italy's poorest region. Calabria has the highest unemployment rate in Italy, little industry and rampant organized crime. Across the strait, the Sicilian town of Messina has suffered centuries of plague, malaria, cholera and earthquakes. What better place than to push the frontiers of engineering?

The bridge's designers have been mindful of the region's propensity for disaster. The bridge will be built to withstand a magnitude-7.1 earthquake, and it will have aerodynamic "windbreak barriers" that will allow it to withstand gusts of more than 200 kilometers an hour. Two I-shaped steel towers, each 370 meters high, will rest on massive prism-shaped blocks of concrete set into the rocky shores. The roadway will hang from the towers by four 1.4-meter cables, each made up of 88 strands of galvanized steel. In case trucks carrying hazardous materials collide and leak, the roadways will be pitched at a 2 percent slope and equipped with gutters so runoff won't drain into the sea.

The government hopes that the bridge will trigger a tourism-fueled revival of the area. It's hard to see how things could be worse. Local ferries take only an hour, but passengers often stand in queues for hours. The road down to Villa San Giovanni, where the ferries depart from the mainland, is a lonely, crime-ridden stretch. To avoid it, many travelers prefer the 10-hour overnight ferry from Naples. The government would remedy this with extensive improvements to the existing highway, which would lead to the bridge's 12 vehicle lanes, more than on any other bridge in the world. (Six lanes will accommodate 9,000 motor vehicles an hour, two will carry 200 trains a day and the rest will be reserved for maintenance and emergencies.)

You'd think local residents would be dancing in the streets, but no. Politicians first began promising the bridge back in 1971. Locals have grown so weary of delays and disappointments that the bridge has become a euphemism for procrastination ("I'll pay you back when the bridge is done"). Part of the problem has been controversy over whether the mafia can be kept out of the project. Luciano Violante, president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, is so concerned about mob influence inflating construction costs that he wants procedures put in place that would ensure bidding for contracts. Stretto di Messina, the company that will oversee the project, has asked for a judicial committee to help determine the legitimacy of investors. The bridge would also unite two of southern Italy's most notorious mafia networks, potentially opening up new opportunities for smuggling and profit skimming.

The environment is also a concern. Fulco Pratesi, president of the World Wildlife Fund in Italy, warns that the years of construction will damage the marine ecosystem. The rocks on the shore will have to be moved, the seabed will be disturbed and the noise will affect birds and other wildlife.

Even opponents of the plan, including Italy's Green Party, seem to be growing weary of arguing. "Whatever the decision, we will have to applaud the fact that it at least will be a decision," said a recent editorial in L'Unita, a national daily. "It will at least sound the trumpet against indecision, which is a national trait."

This time the government seems serious. A committee on economic planning signed off on the 5.7 billion project last year. The government is expected to pay 61 percent of construction costs, with private investors providing the rest in return for tolls and railway fees. The prime minister approved the construction blueprints. All that's left now is for the Italian Parliament to give its blessing--a virtual certainty because of the ruling coalition's comfortable majority. Construction could begin in 2004 and be finished by 2010. "The long dream of this bridge is finally becoming a reality," says Antonino Calarco, chairman of the umbrella organization overseeing the project on behalf of the locals. If it does, perhaps the cloud over this barren region will finally lift.

OVER TROUBLED WATERS | News