Riding The 'Underwater'

Venice has long been in trouble. Its population is shrinking. Its historic buildings are crumbling. The whole city is sinking slowly into the sea. You could say the town is going down the tube, figuratively speaking. And soon that may be true literally, as well.

You see, if Mayor Paolo Costa has his way--and most likely he will--Venice will soon have a subway. That might seem odd in a place where the major streets are filled with water. But municipal planners and tourism officials say that's the only way to go, at least if Venice wants to preserve its cultural integrity and charm. Its famed canals are congested with gondolas, water buses and taxi-boat traffic, they argue, lauding the capabilities of the proposed new underground to move as many as 2,000 tourists an hour around the city. Construction is set to begin within the year, Costa tells NEWSWEEK: "This is all part of a plan to save Venice."

Actually, Venetians have always devised clever ways of keeping out the waters that inundate their squares and palazzos for four months of every year. There's the Moses Project, getting started this spring, which will tame the tides of its lagoon with floodgates. There's a plan to elevate portions of the city by as much as 10 centimeters, the better to keep feet dry. And slowly, many canals are being drained and sewage systems repaired. All this, say city planners, will allow Venice to build a subway without cutting into buildings or foundations. Instead, it will glide along tunnels in and under the canals themselves, relieving water traffic without physically changing the city.

Opponents are not persuaded. They worry that the new subway could somehow cause Venice's waters to rise still further, or damage the city in other unanticipated ways. The proposed subway will eventually displace many of the romantic vaporetti, or city water buses that ferry those who don't want to pay high-priced gondoliers. Venetians are upset, too, at the prospect of losing the sweet isolation that comes from living in an area accessible only by sea. Proponents tout the subway as being "tourist friendly," opening areas of the city that are not easily accessible by water. But many locals see those tourists as Venice's biggest problem. What Venice needs is fewer visitors, not more, they say. Enough is enough.

Not surprisingly, the city's chief spokes-man, Guido Moltedo, has little patience with such naysaying: Venice will have its subway. "This mayor is very strong and has the power to do what is needed," he says. "If you want a city to be alive, and not dead like Pompeii, or too alive like Disneyland, you have to do things that make it normal." Normal, he seems to think, along with the mayor, is to have an underground. Except that in Venice's case, perhaps, it should be called an "underwater."