Berlusconi was reelected as prime minister in 2008 and revived the project, which was once again approved three years later—though the price had risen from €6.16 billion ($6.72 billion) to €8.5 billion. But shortly after, amid the backdrop of an acute debt crisis in the Euro zone, Berlusconi lost his majority and resigned. His successor, Mario Monti, a respected technocrat, canceled the project a final time in 2013.
Now, the same project has been resurrected by the current government, which in mid-March approved a decree paving the way for the construction of the bridge. This time it’s championed by Matteo Salvini, deputy PM and leader of the populist League party—with support from Berlusconi, now 86, who wrote, “They won’t stop us this time” in an Instagram post on the day the decree was signed.
One of the reasons the project keeps getting revived is that there are so many people profiting from the work of planning for it, according to Nicola Chielotti, a lecturer in diplomacy and international governance at the Loughborough University in London: “They constantly spend money on it, even if it never materializes, and there are some interest groups who are happy to capture that money.”
Salvini himself has acknowledged that “it’s less expensive to build the bridge than to not build it.”
Another issue, Chielotti adds, is that the project is a useful political pawn for a government that has so far been quiet on some key electoral promises, such as tax reform and an aggressive stance towards international finance.
But the project’s strong politicization—which has resulted mainly in support from the right and opposition from the left—might also be a case of “infrastructure populism,” according to Angelini. “The rhetoric around the bridge is oozing nationalism,” he says, “and the idea is seen as a symbol of Italy’s grandeur, or the ability to build a bridge longer than anyone ever has.”
The current design for the crossing is a single-span suspension bridge with a length of 3,300 meters. That’s 60 percent longer than the Canakkale Bridge in Turkey, currently the world’s longest suspension bridge, which spans 2,023 meters. With pylons towering in at 380 meters (1,250 feet), the Messina Strait bridge would also be the world’s tallest by structural height, edging out the Millau Viaduct in France, which is 342 meters tall. It would be able to carry 6,000 road vehicles per hour and 200 trains per day, and since the span would be 65 meters above the water, naval traffic would be able to pass undisturbed beneath it.
Travel time by train between the island and the mainland—currently around two hours including the ferry journey–would be cut to under 10 minutes, bringing the nearly 5 million people who live on Sicily much closer to the rest of Italy.
Previous plans were for three spans, Muscolino says, with two pylons built in the sea, each sunk between 80 and 100 meters below sea level. These would have been unworkable, given the strong currents in the strait, and would have created a risk to shipping.