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Frontline/WORLD: A Bridge Too Far?

Mary Spicuzza
Frontline/WORLD Fellow
Friday, May 7, 2004; 11:00 AM

For nearly 3,000 years -- probably longer -- the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from mainland Italy, has been notorious as one of the more volatile places on Earth. In the Odyssey, bloodthirsty sea monsters devoured those who tried to cross the passage. And over the millennia, it has been the site of ship-swallowing whirlpools and catastrophes like earthquakes, not to mention Mafia scandals. But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vows that the strait will soon be the home of a new legend -- the world's longest suspension bridge. As the Italian government prepares to begin construction next year, FRONTLINE/World Fellow Mary Spicuzza traveled to Sicily to explore the storm building over the plans for a bridge across the Strait of Messina.

Spicuzza was online Friday, May 7 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss her Web exclusive report, "A Bridge Too Far?"


The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Mary Spicuzza: Hello. Thanks for your questions about my multimedia web project on plans for a massive suspension bridge linking Italy and Sicily. I'll start answering your questions momentarily.
The complete article can be found at:
http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/fellows/sicily0404/intro.html

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Lexington, Ky.: Is there any concern that such a bridge would become a target for terrorists?

Mary Spicuzza: Yes, definitely. Some Sicilians and Italians are fighting bridge plans because they're concerned that such an enormous project could become a target for terrorists. Bridge planners and the Italian government insist that they will have extra security patrolling the bridge if and when it is built. But it's obviously difficult to plan for terrorist attacks.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Ms. Spicuzza,

Is the Mafia still powerful in Sicily? Would they be involved in labor or materials that go into the bridge?
Have you ever had a run in with any of them?

Mary Spicuzza: The Mafia still is powerful in Sicily, although there has been a lot of anti-Mafia organizing there in recent years -- especially since the 1992 murder of anti-Mafia Judge Falcone.
Many Sicilians are worried that the project, which may cost up to 6 billion euros ($7.3 billion US dollars), will funnel money into Mafia-run construction and contracting companies.
I've never personally had any run-ins with the Mafia, but my cousin Augie was murdered in 1978 by Mafia leaders in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was car bombed because a Mafia don thought he was "arrogant."

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Alexandria, Va.: Mary, do you think this bridge is likely to globalize--or "nationalize"--Sicily, or will the Sicilian people, at least those in smaller communities, continue to adhere to their traditional ways?

Mary Spicuzza: Hi there. Great question. I think that a bridge to Sicily would definitely change the island and its culture. Sicily already has an incredible blend of cultures and a balance of traditions with modern living. But it's hard to predict exactly how the bridge, if built, would globalize Sicily.
Thanks for your question.

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Fairfax, Va.: Was there any consideration of building the bridge through the water or is the strait too dangerous?

Mary Spicuzza: Hello. Bridge designers studied several different models, and decided on the current design because they believe it is the safest plan. The strait has very strong currents, and is in a very earthquake-prone area, so a low bridge and tunnel designs were considered too dangerous.
This design is not only very long, it's also very tall.

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Woodstock, Ga.: My fifth grade students have been studying famous bridges. How do the designers plan to address the problems of earthquakes and volcanic activity?

Mary Spicuzza: Please say hi to your class for me, and tell them they can email Frontline World if they have any other bridge questions in the future.
Designers have researched the other big bridge projects, like the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan. They've also been doing numerous bridge safety tests. They have a small model of the bridge in a wind tunnel in northern Italy, testing to see if the 2-mile-long bridge can withstand the Strait of Messina's high winds.
But environmentalists and anti-bridge activists still are not convinced that an area as volatile as the strait can support such a large project.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Have any environmental impact studies been done as to how the bridge will affect currents in the Mediterranean?

Has there been any successful control of robbers in both southern Italy and Sicily so that tourists would feel safe driving across this bridge?

How has Berlusconi guaranteed that the Mafia will not be doing cut-rate construction on this bridge so that it won't collapse in an earthquake--or even from poor materials--as has happened very often in Italian housing developments?

Mary Spicuzza: Good questions. The bridge company did do an environmental impact report, and decided that a bridge wouldn't cause serious problems for the surrounding seas.
However, environmentalists say the EIR studies were incomplete, and ignored potential problems. They are really worried that migratory patterns of birds, marine mammals and fish will be changed if the bridge is built.
I haven't heard much about tourists being robbed any more than in Rome or other areas of Italy.
As for Berlusconi and the Mafia-it's unclear how the bridge company and Italian government will investigate companies interested in bridge building contracts. But you're right, the Mafia has been involved in some very questionable construction project in Sicily.

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Oakland, Calif.: How do the people on the other side of the Strait, in Italy, feel about having a closer connection to the island?

Mary Spicuzza: Thanks for your question. The bridge project is controversial on both sides of the strait. Supporters in southern Italy say it will bring jobs and economic development to the Mezzogiorno. But opponents say it will link two economically weak areas, and only make things worse for southern Italy.
The two sides already have a ferry service between them, and have very close connections between them.

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Portland, Ore.: Overall, were your experiences working with the Sicilian people positive? Were they eager to share their story/their views with the world?

Mary Spicuzza: I spent nearly a month in Sicily, and met countless people who were friendly, open, and very eager to share their stories. I'm Sicilian-American, and I also spent a lot of time with relatives who took very good care of me.
Just about everyone I interviewed was also eager to share food and feed me. So the only downside of my trip was that I was incredibly, sometimes painfully full!

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Washington, DC: Hi Mary-

Thanks for "chatting" on this subject today...

Messina was destroyed in 1908 by a large earthquake, which I think was about a 6.9.
I've read that the Messina Bridge could handle up to a 7.1 quake without sustaining damage. What kind of seismological activity could be expected on the straits in the next 100 years or so? What's the largest quake ever to hit the area?

Mary Spicuzza: Hello. There have been other earthquakes since 1908, and more are expected in the next 100 years. Engineers are trying to design a bridge that could withstand a 7.1 quake without being damaged because they believe such a strong earthquake could strike Messina in the next 100 years.
The largest and deadliest quake that I know of was the massive 1908 tragedy, which killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people (some say even more died).

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Silver Spring, Md.: How long did it take you to research and film the documentary and will the show re-air again on PBS?

Mary Spicuzza: Thanks for your question.
I heard about the bridge during my first trip to Sicily in 1999. I spent several months before my trip reading about the bridge, Sicilian history, and I've used the project as an excuse to read some great Sicilian literature, like a book named The Leopard.
I was in Sicily for about a month interviewing, and I spent about 3 months writing, editing, organizing my photos, etc.
The story is actually a web piece that can be found at:
Frontline/World: Sicily: A Bridge Too Far?

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Anonymous: How and why did you choose to do a documentary on the bridge? Would there be any chance that building the bridge would not happen?

Mary Spicuzza: I wanted to do a story about the bridge because I traveled to Sicily with my niece and sister in 1999, and I was really surprised when my train boarded a ferry to cross the strait. But I loved that I could look out over the deck with espresso and pastries as our train ferry pulled into Sicily.
When I heard about the bridge, I was really curious about how it would change Sicily and travel there.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promises that the bridge will be built, and has opened bidding for contractors. But many are skeptical that the bridge will ever be built.

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Arlington, Va.: Is there much support in Italy, Sicily and the neighboring countries in building the bridge or not? What are some of the safety precautions being considered?

Mary Spicuzza: Hello, thanks for your question. The project is controversial on both sides of the strait. As for opinion outside Italy, it did not make the European Union's list of Top 10 priority projects and Greens have been very opposed to the bridge.
As far as safety precautions, bridge designers are trying to make sure the bridge will be secure despite the earthquakes, high winds, shifting land under the strait, and strong currents. They are also planning to have tight security to prevent terrorist attacks.

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Vienna, Va.: Do building bridges undergo the same codes as building tall buildings? What factors are considered in creating a long suspension such as climate, etc.?

Mary Spicuzza: Good question. Bridges do go through a series of safety tests, and have safety codes that they have to follow.
And as for climate and other factors considered, they study soil dynamics (the land under and around the strait isn't stable), seismic activity, sea currents, and winds. They also have done some environmental impact studies for the project-although environmentalists aren't happy with the EIRs that were done.

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Washington, D.C.: If the bridge is constructed, do you anticipate that the ferry service will continue?

Mary Spicuzza: The bridge will be high enough that ferries and other ships will be able to continue using the ports in the area, like the ports in Messina and Villa San Giovanni.
But ferry companies are worried that they will be forced out of business if the bridge is built.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the longest bridge ever to be built in the world?

Mary Spicuzza: Good question. Here's a pretty comprehensive list of the world's longest bridges.
Web site: World's Longest Bridge Spans
The world's longest suspension bridge is currently the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan. But if it's built the Messina Bridge, a single-span bridge, will be the longest suspension bridge in the world.

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Mary Spicuzza: Thanks so much for all of your questions.
If you have any other comments or questions, please get in touch with me by going clicking on "react" at the Frontline World site: Sicily: A Bridge Too Far?
Thanks again,
Mary

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