Ancient Nordic Rivals Link Up in Bridge Project

Over the years, Sweden and Denmark have had somewhat of a sibling rivalry.

Swedes are boring, Danes say, poking fun at the droves of Swedes who take the ferries to Copenhagen on the weekends for entertainment.

Danes feel inferior and have a secret desire to conquer, Swedes jest, making reference to when Denmark ruled their country centuries ago, later losing portions of southern Sweden during two wars in the mid-1600s.

But despite the big brother-little brother squabbling, Danes and Swedes often visit each other's country, both for work and to relax at summer homes.

Soon the ties will grow even tighter, as the two countries are joined by a bridge and tunnel system from Malmo, Sweden, to Copenhagen. It's a project that rivals the British-French channel tunnel in terms of making a historic connection.

"We used to think in terms of nation-states," says Kim Solomon, a historian who teaches at Lund University in southern Sweden. "Now there's a movement of being a member of the common [European Union]."

Complex construction

The 10-mile-long Oresund Link, as it's called, is actually three bridges and an underground tunnel. Travelers will journey from the Copenhagen airport via a rail link, continue through a tunnel off the Danish coast of Kastrup, near Copenhagen, and complete their journey over east and west approach bridges on either side of a cabled bridge off the Swedish coast in Leurnacken, near Malmo.

Expected to open in 2000, the link will accommodate freight and high-speed passenger trains and a four-lane motorway. Construction costs are projected to be $3.7 billion and will be paid for by a $25 toll for automobiles over the next 30 years.

While there have been various plans over the past 100 years to link the two countries, economics finally pushed the two governments into action. The areas surrounding Copenhagen and Malm have a population of 3.2 million and one of the highest per-capita incomes in Europe.

The new link will reduce travel time between Malm and Copenhagen from a 45-minute ferry ride to an estimated eight-minute drive, bringing an anticipated 10,000 cars across the bridge per day. That, many hope, will stimulate growth in the region, making it more competitive with other areas of the European Union.

Uffe Palludan, a Danish economist who has forecast the potential benefits of the bridge, says the reduction in travel time between Malm and Copenhagen will produce "fundamental" changes, including new laws. There will be more collaboration between the universities and governments of the two countries, he says.

Sweden and Denmark already have approved joint tax legislation aimed at reducing loopholes for those who live in one country but work in another.

"You'll see huge changes in all regulating systems," Mr. Palludan says.

Real estate is also expected to increase significantly in value.

Environmental concerns

But while some wax poetic about linking Sweden to the rest of Europe, others are less than enthusiastic.

One critic, Arne Gaardmande, a Dane, has written a book entitled, "A Bridge to Nowhere." He says officials manipulated traffic and cost figures to justify their plan, and that Denmark claimed exemption from publicly disclosing information about the project.

"It's the most undemocratic decision we've had," Mr. Gaardmande says.

Environmental groups, who worried that construction of the link would disturb the flow of water and ecosystem of the Baltic Sea, still worry about increased auto emissions. "We actively campaigned against the bridge for three years until the final decisions were made by the governments," says Mats Abrahansson, a spokesman for Greenpeace.

Many Swedes remain skeptical of the need for the bridge. "It's unnecessary," says Elna Larsson, who lives in Gllevare in the northern part of Sweden. "There are boats."

Construction of the Oresund Link has had its highs and lows. The two countries signed an agreement in 1991 to build the link. But Denmark jumped the gun when it tore down 200 homes on its side of the Oresund Strait before the plan had received final approval in Sweden - an embarrassment for officials on both sides. Sweden has had officials resign over the project.

Officials from the Oresund Konsortiet, a three-company group building the link, bristle at any suggestion that it would be like the $15 billion Chunnel between Dover, Britain, and Calais in France, which opened in 1994 - a year late - with billions of dollars in cost overruns. "There's a big difference between the Chunnel and this project," says Oresund Konsortiet CEO Sven Landelius. "This project is guaranteed by two states." The Chunnel is privately owned and financed.

Denmark gets connected

As the huge cranes dot the overcast skies in Malm and construction is under way on 18,000-ton pylons that will be pulled out to sea by catamaran in April, there's another bridge across the water that's soon to open.

After nine years of debate, planning, and construction, an 11-mile-long rail link between Denmark's islands of Zealand and Funen will opens for freight trains this month and passenger trains in June. Next year, cars will be able to cross a motorway and two new bridges that form the other portion of the Great Belt Link.

It's the first time there will be a continuous land connection linking Copenhagen, which is on an island, to the rest of Europe. Danish officials expect their country's east-west traffic to double when travel time between Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark's largest cities, will be reduced from five hours to 2-1/2.

A third link between east Denmark and northern Germany, "The Fehmarn Belt," is also being studied.

The three links and the billions of dollars the Danish government has spent on expanding highways in the past 30 years are crucial to the country's transportation and economic well being, officials say.

"The logistic advantages are quite important," says Bjorn Westh, Denmark's minister of transport.

Other Long links In Europe

Rhine-Main-Danube canal (1992) Waterway stretching from Rotterdam, Holland, to the Black Sea; 2,175 miles.

The Chunnel (1994) Railway tunnel linking France to Britain; 31 miles under the English Channel.

Simpion No. 1 and 2 (1906, 1922) Mountain railway tunnel linking Switzerland and Italy; 12 miles.

Great Belt Link (opening in 1998) Suspension bridge over seaway for trains and automobiles in Denmark; 5,328 feet.

Bosporus I and II (1988, 1973) Suspension bridges for automobiles linking Europe and Asia in Turkey; 3,576 feet and 3,323 feet.

Proposed links

Morocco-Spain tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar; 9 miles.

Bridge linking Sicily to the boot of Italy across the Strait of Messina; approximately 10,000 feet.

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