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Italians Debate Planned Bridge Over Troubled Waters

August 20, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

TORRE FARO, Italy — Since the times of their grandfathers' grandfathers, the people here on the tip of Sicily have entertained mankind's desire to tame the Strait of Messina.

The treacherous waterway that separates this island from Italy's boot toe daunted Ulysses and Hannibal. Mythical monsters menaced its shores, and invading armadas braved the crossing at great peril.

Now, Silvio Berlusconi is taking his turn.

The billionaire prime minister wants to build the world's longest suspension bridge across the strait, the most ambitious component of an enormous, and lucrative, public works project aimed at modernizing his country's infrastructure while winning votes.

After more than three decades of debate, plans have been drawn, contractors are bidding and construction is scheduled to begin at the end of next year. The $7.5-billion project is to be completed in 2012, if all goes to form.

Spanning 2.06 miles, the bridge would for the first time link Sicily to the mainland -- a connection Berlusconi and supporters say would finally take the picturesque but tradition-bound island "into the heart of Europe."

The project is fraught with risks: The area is seismic, the price tag is huge, the possibility of Mafia infiltration is ever-present. But proponents say the bridge is the key to economic and social revival of impoverished southern Italy.

In seaside villages such as Torre Faro on the Sicilian shore, and Villa San Giovanni on the mainland, opposition to the bridge runs deep. Deeper still is skepticism that the bridge would be completed.

The arguments sound familiar to anyone well versed in the controversies of coastal development.

Opponents say the bridge would ruin habitats of sea creatures and plants, displace hundreds of people, throw others out of work and destroy a cherished, laid-back way of life. They argue the bridge is unnecessary -- people can cross the strait on ferries -- and an expensive boondoggle when southern Italy has greater needs, such as good roads.

"They want to ruin the most beautiful part of Sicily," Nicola Mancuso, 47, said as he plucked mussels from one of the deep freshwater lagoons that dot the island's northeast corner.

The mistrust that courses through southern Italy, especially its islands, makes it difficult for people here to believe they stand to benefit. Sicilians feel isolated and largely abandoned by any central Italian government; geographically, Sicily is closer to Tunisia than to Rome.

They've seen too many projects start only to be abandoned, in part because of Mafia corruption. Mobbed-up companies get contracts, pour the concrete, take the money and run.

Such problems aside, there certainly is raw beauty here. Large, slow ferries and graceful sailboats crisscross the choppy waters of the strait -- where the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas meet -- much as they have for generations. Fishing boats with spotters high in the masts are on the lookout for swordfish, the local staple; the shiny spear-like creatures, longer than a man is tall, are hauled in, carved up and sold right at the water's edge.

Residents who oppose the bridge and the disruption they believe it would bring envision their idyllic corner converted into a huge, dust-choked construction pit. They fear being reduced to living in ghettoes in the shadow of a mighty steel bridge, like the underpass-dwelling homeless they see on American TV programs.

Father Mario Aiello, the parish priest here in Torre Faro, says politicians on both the left and right have been promising to build a bridge over the Strait of Messina for as long as anyone can remember.

"We are sure it will never be built," Aiello, 59, said in a small office at his 200-year-old church. "But our fear is they will begin, dig the construction sites, destroy the houses, then never finish. Only the ruins will remain, and we'll end up like Troy."

Andrea Risitano, a banker who until recently served as an elected official in a post roughly equivalent to county supervisor, joined the conversation and said he agreed with the priest.

"As children we always heard: 'The bridge! The bridge!' -- it was like a dream. Now we are becoming aware of the nightmare," said Risitano, 54. "They'll open the sites for 10 years, and the Mafia will eat the money."

Sebastian Deodado, a mortuary driver, was more hopeful. Making it easier to cross to "the continent" could open up new worlds, he said.

"And more tourists will come to see this famous bridge that everyone is talking about," said Deodado, 24, who makes it across the water only once or twice a year.

To make way for the powerful pylons that would support the bridge, about 800 homes would be destroyed in villages on both sides of the strait and several hundred families displaced. Support cables would stretch above Torre Faro's cemetery and an access ramp would nip at its edge. At least 1,200 ferryboat pilots would lose their jobs.

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