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Messina bridge motives in question

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So, the Messina Bridge is to be built at last. Probably. One of the last great water barriers in Europe is to be conquered, decades after the idea was first mooted.

Should the project finally emerge from the usual murky morass of Italian construction politics, some time in the next decade Sicily will be linked to Calabria by the world's longest suspended span.

Enterprising motorists will at last be able to drive from Palermo to Stockholm unhindered by the archaic need to trust their vehicles on unpredictable ferries. And, say the £3.3bn project's promoters, economic and social development will surely follow.

Calabria and Sicily certainly could do with some real practical help towards entering the 21st century, and have little to show for the development funds thrown at the region for more than 50 years.

Much of the damage caused by the December 1990 earthquake is still unrepaired, the billions of dollars earmarked for reconstruction having vanished somewhere along the line.

A record-breaking bridge has a momentum of its own - it becomes a symbol, and a test of political and technical commitment. Turning it into a cash cow for corrupt politicians and gangsters is much harder.

So there is no reason to suppose that bridge engineers are not capable of designing and building the Messina crossing and taking suspension bridge technology into a new era. JavaBali may well follow; others are on the drawing board. Someone somewhere will be weighing up the comparative benefits of bridge or tunnel for the Gibraltar Crossing. The technical case is made - but what of the muchvaunted economic benefits?

The Humber Bridge, once the world's longest, is a case in point. The Humber estuary never was a barrier to a key long distance artery in the way the Thames, the Forth or the Severn estuaries were. Has anyone noticed significant economic boom around Barton upon Humber since one bridge opened?

Even more extreme cases could be found in Japan, where a remarkably large number of sparsely populated offshore islands suddenly found themselves linked to the main islands by massive crossings. Japanese politicians have always seen such infrastructure investment as a surefire way of boosting the economy - a view enthusiastically endorsed by Japanese construction companies. The funding has continued even when it had become obvious there was no real need for those bridges and airports.

Humber and Tay had a similar genesis, even if the motives of those involved were rather more altruistic. Local politicians and bridge builders wanted those crossings, and national government saw political advantage in their endorsement.

Something similar seems to be happening in Rome and Palermo. Nobody seems to be questioning who will use the new bridge. And nobody is explaining what or who will drive new development in the area.

Until we get some answers, the suspicion is that Messina will be another Humber - a tribute to the skill of its builders, a memorial to the myopia of elected politicians.

Dave Parker is NCE's technical editor

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