There is a popular saying in Italian – similar to how Anglophones use “when hell freezes over” – that translates as “I’ll do it when the bridge to Messina is finished.”
The dream of a bridge connecting the mainland to Sicily across the Straits of Messina goes back to Roman times, when Consul Metellus strung together barrels and wood to move 100 war elephants from Carthage to Rome in 252 BCE, according to writings by Pliny the Elder.
Since then, various plans, including a short-lived idea for a tunnel, have come and gone – like water under the bridge.
If built, the bridge across the Straits of Messina would span two miles (3.2 kilometers) and would be the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Now the massive engineering project might actually be realized, thanks to a decree passed by the government of Giorgia Meloni last month after Transport Minister Matteo Salvini revived a plan last pushed forward when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister.
In 2006, the bid to build the bridge was awarded to a consortium led by the Italian firm Salini Impregilo, now called WeBuild. When Berlusconi’s government fell that year, the plans to build the bridge collapsed with his government after the next prime minister, Romano Prodi, deemed it a waste of money and a risk to the environment.
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. When Salvini became transport minister, he made it his priority, betting his legacy on the bridge.
WeBuild, which still has the bid award on paper, sued the government for breach of contract after the project was paused, but it remains the most likely company to be given the job back despite “expressions of interest from all over the world, including China,” Salvini told the Foreign Press Association in Rome in March when he presented the plan.
“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.
WeBuild’s engineering director, Michele Longo, was invited to parliament to talk about the revived plan April 18.
“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. “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.”
The cost of the project is 4.5 billion euros ($4.96 billion) for the bridge alone and 6.75 billion euros ($7.4 billion) 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.
Since 1965, 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in public funds has already been spent on feasibility studies, according to Italian treasury department. Salvini is fond of saying it will cost more “not to build the bridge than build it.”
The plans may seem well advanced but the challenges are complex.
Southern Italy is prone to corruption with two major organized crime syndicates – the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra – excelling in infiltrating construction projects.
The recent arrest of Cosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro after 30 years on the lam in Sicily represented a victory.
Denaro was against the building of the bridge, as are some other mob bosses, according to testimony from informants who contributed to Denaro’s arrest, in part because the organized crime syndicates feed off poverty and underdevelopment.
Despite this, fears remain. An anti-Mafia from study from the Nomos Centre think tank published 20 years ago and now being updated warned parts of the project, such as transport and supply could fall under criminal control, as well as there being the possibility local mobs could demand protection money.
Salvini has played down concerns. “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.”
There are also geophysical problems that may be even more difficult to contend with.
The Strait of Messina is along a fault line where a 7.1 earthquake in 1908, killed more than 100,000 people and spawned tsunamis that devastated the coastal areas on both the Calabrian and Sicilian sides of the water. It remains the deadliest recorded seismic event in Europe to date.
The waters, too, are turbulent. Currents are so strong they often rip seaweed off the seabed, and they change every six hours, according to NASA, which notes that the strong wave patterns are visible from space.
Under WeBuild’s original plan, which is the only one currently under consideration since bids have not been, and may not be, opened, the bridge deck would be built to withstand winds of up to 300 kilometers an hour – and could stay open to traffic with winds up to 150 kilometers an hour.
There would be three vehicle lanes in each direction – two for traffic, and one for emergency, with train lines in the middle. Under the current plan, 6,000 cars and trucks could pass each hour, and 200 trains could pass each day.
The bridge would be around 74 meters above sea level and allow a navigation channel of 600 meters, allowing cargo vessels and even the tallest cruise ships to pass. It would also be designed to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, slightly stronger than the devastating one in 1908.
The construction phase alone would contribute 2.9 billion euros to the national GDP and employ 100,000 people and 300 suppliers, Longo told parliament, adding “most of these people would come from the regions of Sicily and Calabria where there the rates of unemployment are high.”
On the geographical challenges, Longo told CNN it is “one of the most dynamic straits of water anywhere between the depths and currents, but it is also one of the most studied areas. There millions of pages of studies dedicated to this area. We’ve read them all.” On the dangers of organized crime getting involved he said “nothing is impossible, but this is low risk.”
Environmentalists have long argued the bridge would be devastating to the terrain and wildlife.
“In the Strait of Messina, a very important place of transit for birds and marine mammals, one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world is concentrated,” a spokesperson for the group Legambiente says, adding that the bridge – both during and after construction – would disrupt migration routes between the Africa and Europe.
The World Wildlife Fund has also campaigned against reviving the project. “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, the group was preparing a lawsuit to try to stop it for breaching European Union protected areas.
The environmental groups contend that the half-hour ferry is the least disruptive route.
The post-bridge impact to the economy would be unarguably high, Salvini insists, saying that cargo ships from Asia could dock in Sicily and those goods could be transported on high-speed trains to Europe, once high-speed rails are built on Sicily – although they do not currently exist.
Public opinion on both sides of the straits remains mixed, with those in a position to prosper through increased trade and easier tourism generally in support of it and those who don’t mind keeping Sicily isolated largely against it.
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 be put in place. The decree will become law in June, and Salvini said he hopes to break ground by July 2024.
The Straits of Messina have long been equated with troubled waters. Homer created the sea monsters’ den for Scylla and Charybdis there for a reason. And while the only monsters might be ecological and criminal, there is little question that no matter when it happens, the dream for some of building the bridge to Messina won’t be put to rest until it’s finished.