12 aprile 2023

di Francesco Ramella

The bridge between Sicily and the Italian mainland is probably the longest living project in the world. According to some historians, it dates back to the Romans. The idea had been contemplated by Charlemagne in the IX century and apparently abandoned due to excessively high costs. In 1840, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, the king of the two Sicilies, thought about it again and then dropped it. The first modern feasibility studies of a road and rail link were carried out in 1969. The Italian Ministry of Public Works launched an international call: 143 projects were presented. In 1986 the government created the “Stretto di Messina S.p.A.” company and charged it with the design, construction, and management of the infrastructure. The company stayed alive until 2013 and was then liquidated by the Monti government. Matteo Salvini, the current minister of infrastructure and leader of the League, brought it back to life and gave it new impetus. In its present configuration the single span road and rail bridge will be located at the point of minimum distance between Sicily and Calabria. Yet, it will be about 50% longer than the longest similar bridge, the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge in Turkey with a main span of 2.023 metres.

Current cost estimates for the Messina bridge range between 8 and 12 billion euros.

As usual when it comes to transport projects, political expectations are very high: according to its supporters, the bridge will enhance economic growth. However, the economic literature on the subject suggests some caution.

A recent meta-analysis of the relationship between infrastructure and economic growth concludes that the economic impact of this project depends is far from clear, but that “the higher the reliability of the estimate, the closer it is to zero”.

Another paper assesses the returns of different types of road infrastructure in the regions of the European Union. The researchers state that: “highly popular motorway development schemes which have been at the center of development strategies mainly in the periphery of Europe—and in particular in Portugal and Spain—are not associated with the expected economic outcomes, even if promoted by credible, competent and transparent local governments (which is not always the case)”. In France, no clear relationship has been found between the arrival of the HSR and local development.

As stated by Yves Crozet: “Other factors, economic and demographic, are at work. The time savings of a few hundreds of thousands of passengers offer neither a strong fulcrum, nor a powerful leverage to lift an area of several tens or hundreds of thousand of jobs”.

A similar conclusion has been reached for the main transport infrastructure built in southern Italy in the last few decades, the 400 km long Salerno-Reggio Calabria motorway. It caused a significant reorganization of both economic activity and population within Calabria but “does not seem to have helped the convergence of the overall region”.

In brief, there is no reason to believe that the Messina bridge will be a game changer for Sicily. In fact, because of its location it won’t change much in regard to local mobility: today’s fastest travel time by ferry between Messina and Reggio Calabria is just 25 minutes (hydrofoil). Nor it will affect much the long-distance passenger traffic. Air travels from Rome and northern Italy to Sicily will still be faster and less expensive than by rail.

Here is a rough estimate of the benefits of the bridge. The current yearly traffic across the Strait of Messina consists of around 11 million passengers and 2.6 million freight vehicles.

PassengersLight vehiclesHeavy vehiclesGoods (tons)Railway wagons
Messina –
Villa S. Giovanni
Messina –
Reggio Calabria
Tremestieri –
Villa S. Giovanni
Tremestieri –
Reggio Calabria
Traffic crossing the Strait by the followed route, source Ministry of Infrastructure (Italy)

Thanks to the bridge, time to move cars and people across the strait between Messina and Villa S. Giovanni by ferryboat would be shortened by about 40 minutes. The monetary benefits of saving an hour of time is usually estimated at 20€ per passenger and 50€ per freight vehicle. The yearly benefits would then be around 240 million, if traffic remains constant. Let us now suppose that lower travel time increases traffic by 50%, a big figure. The user benefit estimated through the Rule of the half (the net consumer surplus averages half of the time change in the hypothesis that the price of the crossing remains the same), would accrue to around 60 million euro per year.

Although one would need a much more detailed analysis to assess the economic feasibility of the bridge, it seems unlikely that this investment makes economic sense, even if it is far better than the Lyon-Turin tunnel or the 20 billion euros high-speed railway line between Salerno and Reggio Calabria. A “road only” project would be much less expensive and get most of the benefits, but no one seems to consider this alternative. One wonders why.

Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher insisted that “not a public penny” should be invested in the Channel tunnel. Private investors came forward. Then, things took a bad turn. Costs turned out to exceed the expected cost of construction by 80%, and the cost of financing shot up 140%. First year revenues were a fifth of what had been estimated. The company went belly up before long.

Maybe the long story of the Messina bridge will have a happier ending that that of the “Chunnel”. Yet, it would be preferable not to gamble with taxpayers’ money and let the supporters of the project put their money where their mouth is.