By Angelo Amante and Giuseppe Fonte
ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s government said on Monday it would set aside 12 billion euros ($12.65 billion) to build a giant bridge to connect Sicily to the mainland, as it revives a project that appeared to have been killed off ten years ago.
The bridge has been in the planning stages for decades, but the company created to oversee its construction was shut down in 2013 as part of a drive to cut expenses as Italy struggled to rein in rising public debt during a long economic recession.
Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said the 12 billion euros would be invested over a number of years with the first three instalments paid by 2026.
“They are mainly concentrated in 2025 and 2026,” Giorgetti told a news conference as he presented the government’s 2024 budget.
The bridge connecting Sicily to the southern Calabria region would be some 5 km (3.11 miles) long and include a central span measuring 3.3 km – easily beating the current record 2.02 km central span on the Canakkale Bridge in Turkey.
Last month, a consortium led by Italian group Webuild said it had delivered a revamped version of the project, updated according to the most recent technological developments and technical regulations.
The bridge is a highly divisive issue in Italy, drawing fierce criticism from those who question the wisdom of building it in an active earthquake zone and those who say it would be a waste of money harmful to the landscape and ecosystem.
But the project also has strong support from those who believe a fast rail and road connection would boost the chronically underdeveloped economy of southern Italy.
They also say it would enable cargo ships from the Suez Canal to off-load in Sicily, from where trains would whisk the goods to the north, reducing the need for costly voyages across the Mediterranean Sea.
At present cars, trucks and trains have to cross the strait that divides Messina and the toe of Italy by ferry, a journey which takes around 20 minutes from departure to docking.
“I want to inaugurate the construction site in the summer of 2024,” said Infrastructure Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the coalition League party, who made the bridge a top priority in the government’s agenda.
($1 = 0.9489 euros)
(Writing by Angelo Amante; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)