Italy seems to be one step closer to connect Sicily to mainland thanks to a decree passed by the government of Giorgia Meloni last month.
1. Fighting for a controversial legacy
The bid to build the bridge was awarded in 2006 to a consortium led by the Italian firm Salini Impregilo, now called WeBuild, when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was in office. When his government fell that year, the plans to build the project’s development collapsed, as his successor Romano Prodi, raised concerns about the cost, feasibility, and potential environmental impact of such a project. Since then, various governments have tried to revive it, and the current ruling coalition under Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi put it on their list of campaign promises. Once assuming the Transport Minister position, Salvini saw the construction of the bridge as his future legacy and said the massive engineering project was a priority.
In the meantime, WeBuild, currently owning bid award on paper, sued the government for breaching the contract after the project was paused. However, the company remains the most likely company to undertake the job despite “expressions of interest from all over the world, including China,” Salvini told the Foreign Press Association in Rome, when he presented the plan, in March.
“The ones who won the 2006 tender are the ones who will most likely continue with the final version of the project,” he said, without naming WeBuild directly. On April 18, WeBuild’s engineering director, Michele Longo, was invited to parliament to talk about the revived plan.
“The bridge over the Strait of Messina is a project that can break ground immediately. As soon as the contract is reinstated and updated, the project can start,” Longo told parliament quoted by CNN. “The executive design is expected to take eight months, while the time needed to build the bridge will be a little more than six years.”
3. Heavy investment
The cost of the project is 4.5 billion euros for the bridge alone and 6.75 billion euros) for the infrastructure to support it on both sides, which includes upgrading road and rail links, building terminals and doing the prep work on the land and seabed to “reduce hydrogeological risks” during construction, according to the plan presented to the transportation ministry. Overall, since 1965, 1.2 billion euros in public funds has already been spent on feasibility studies, according to Italian treasury department. Salvini’s doesn’t spare words in his determination in going ahead saying it will cost more “not to build the bridge than build it.”
Salvini has dismissed concerns related to organized crime syndicates in the region where the bridge is to be built. The Sicilian Mafia, also known as the Cosa Nostra, has a long history of infiltrating public investment projects through corruption and intimidation. This is often referred to as “mafia capitalism” or “mafia state.”
One common way that the Mafia infiltrates public investment projects is through the awarding of contracts. They may use their influence to ensure that contracts are awarded to companies that they control or have a stake in, often at inflated prices. They may also demand a “mafia tax” or protection money from contractors in exchange for allowing them to operate in a particular area.
“I’m not afraid of criminal infiltration,” he told parliament recently, “we will be able to guarantee that the best Italian, European and global companies work there. There will be supervisory bodies that we are working on for every euro invested on the bridge.”
5. Environmental concerns
The future of the suspension bridge is also facing threats from other fronts. “The entire Strait of Messina area is a protected area under the EU Habitats Directive,” WWF Institutional Relations director Stefano Lenzi said in a statement. Back in 2006, before the plan was shelved, WWF was preparing a lawsuit to try to stop it for breaching European Union protected areas.
“The Strait of Messina is a very important place of transit for birds and marine mammals, one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world is concentrated there,” a spokesperson for the group Legambiente said, quoted by CNN. In addition, the environmental group argue that the bridge – both during and after construction – would disrupt migration routes between the Africa and Europe.
Despite the pushback, the bridge has never been as close to being built as it is now, after Meloni signed the decree to pave the way for concrete plans to take shape. The decree will become law in June and Salvini said he hopes to do preparatory digging by July 2024.