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Italian cuts leave planned bridge to Sicily in doubt

By ,By Tony Barber in Rome
Updated: 8:11 p.m. ET Aug. 11, 2006

As far back as the dawn of European literature, statesmen, inventors and poets have dreamed of a safe way to cross the Strait of Messina, the narrow and earthquake-prone stretch of water between Sicily and the Italian mainland.

The latest was Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former prime minister – but now his hopes of building a gigantic bridge across the strait are falling prey to budget-cutting by the centre-left government of Romano Prodi, who succeeded him in May.

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The government said this month that the bridge was one of 19 infrastructure projects, proclaimed with great fanfare under Mr Berlusconi, whose future was under review because of a €115bn ($147bn, £77.4bn) shortfall in available funds.

That may spell doom for the bridge, which was to have soared above the waves where, almost 3,000 years ago, Homer imagined the monsters Scylla and Charybdis attacking the Greek hero Odysseus as he sailed across.

Another scheme that may bite the dust is "Moses", a plan to erect 79 flood barriers across Venice's lagoon to protect the often waterlogged city from high Adriatic tides.

Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, finance minister, acknowledged the cutbacks were a delicate matter. "We find ourselves in a very worrying situation, because expectations have been created," he told reporters.

In the Sicilian case, rather more than expectations have been raised. Impregilo, an Italian construction group, led a consortium that won a contract last October to build the bridge from Stretto di Messina, the company supervising the project.

Under the €3.9bn deal, Impregilo was to build the world's longest suspension bridge, with a central span of 3.3km and capable of handling 6,000 vehicles an hour and 200 trains a day. Construction was to be completed in 2012.

The government, cautious about the legal implications of explicitly abandoning the project, is talking with the companies about focusing on related schemes to improve poor transport networks in Sicily and southern Italy.

"The Prodi government's job is to suspend the progress of this useless and expensive bridge, and instead to support public works that really help the south," said Anna Donati, a member of the Greens party, in Mr Prodi's coalition.

At present, slow ferry services connect Sicily to the mainland, and long queues of vehicles are common. Under a bill drafted by Ms Donati, new transport systems would be developed in the strait area.

Whether these plans will come to fruition is uncertain. The Berlusconi government estimated in 2001 that its infrastructure projects would cost €125.9bn, but Mr Padoa-Schioppa said the figure had risen to €173.4bn by this year.

With the government fighting to cut its budget deficit to less than 3 per cent of gross domestic product next year, and to avoid a downgrade in its debt ratings, Mr Padoa-Schioppa said only €58.4bn was available for the infrastructure projects.

For the Venice flood barriers, only €1.46bn was available out of an expected cost of €4.3bn. Much doubt also hangs over a plan to build a high-speed railway from Turin to Lyons in France.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.
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