Still a Dream: 'Wonder' Bridge Between Italy's 'Boot' And Sicily

ANTONIO CALARCO has a passion for the bridge across the Strait of Messina. There is just one problem: The bridge doesn't exist.

To get to Messina on the island of Sicily today, you have to take a hydrofoil from Reggio Calabria or go up to Villa San Giovanni for a ferryboat.

But the decades-old desire of Mr. Calarco, president of the Stretto di Messina company that is proposing the project, is that you could hop on a bridge connecting the Italian mainland with Sicily.

Such a bridge is an ancient dream, said to date back to Hannibal's desire to transport elephants from Sicily to the European Continent during the Second Punic War.

It would be a unique man-made wonder, with a central span more than twice the length of the central span of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and with towers on each bank of the strait as tall as New York City's Empire State Building.

With a four-lane highway for motor vehicles and two train tracks, the bridge would slash travel time to and from Sicily. It would be built to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, and airplane crashes. It would offer thousands of jobs in an area where unemployment is high.

"I believe the bridge represents the only way toward development of the south that Italy has," Calarco says.

But after more than a decade of planning and more than $60 million already spent, the state-run project has stalled.

The problem, says Calarco, who also serves as editor of the Gazzetta del Sud newspaper here, is that the project is hung up in the seemingly perpetual instability of Italy's governments.

Italy has had five prime ministers in the last five years, not to mention two parliamentary elections, the second of which purged Parliament of dozens of politicians implicated in corruption scandals.

The most badly tainted political leader of all was former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, the ex-leader of Italy's Socialist Party and the man who gave the project its start.

Mr. Craxi, whose father was from Messina, was enthusiastic about gargantuan public works projects, reminiscent of those of dictator Benito Mussolini. Such projects, Italian investigating magistrates now say, produced millions of dollars in kickbacks for Craxi's party.

"Craxi was always in love with this idea," Calarco says.

Tunnels and bridges have been planned in Italy since the last century. But it was only in 1981, a decade after the Socialists entered the Italian government, that the Stretto di Messina company was formed. Calarco became its president in 1990, around the time it produced a draft plan for the bridge.

Every government since 1991 has earmarked funds for the project, though Calarco's company has never seen the money itself.

"However, the budget allocation is politically significant," Calarco says. "It means the government is following the activity of this company."

What Calarco now wants is to privatize the project. At present, under Italian law, the bridge must be built with state funding by government-run companies, such as the railways and the state road-building agency.

"If an American or a Japanese came, saying, 'Here's a bunch of dollars or yen, enough to build the bridge,' I'd have to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks, it's not possible,' " Calarco says. "Without that modification of the 1971 law, the bridge will never be built. We have to privatize the project itself."

Financiers for the bridge are reported to be waiting in the wings. If the company is not privatized by year's end, Calarco says, he will resign as its president, though he pledges to continue to be a passionate advocate of the bridge.

Even if the project is privatized, however, there are still hurdles to overcome. Left-wing politicians oppose the bridge, saying its construction would seriously harm the environment and attract Mafia involvement.

"There are economic interests against the building of the bridge," Calarco adds.

About a quarter of the nation's goods pass into and out of Sicily, he says. A significant portion travels by ship or crosses the Strait of Messina in ferries. A bridge would speed the movement of these goods.

One presumed opponent of the bridge would be Amedeo Matacena, whose shipping company with 400 employees provides the ferries to the railway. His company is generally regarded as a powerful lobby against the bridge. But when reached by telephone in his Villa San Giovanni office, Mr. Matacena curtly observes that the project doesn't have anything to do with him, that he could not care less whether the bridge was built or not.

"He must be convinced the bridge will never be built," explains a technical expert working in the Rome government.

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