Let’s for a moment consider the Alaska city of Nome. It is so far removed that the expression “end of the road” doesn’t even apply. There isn’t any road that connects this city of 3,000 isolated souls to the more populous cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, each of which is more than 500 miles away. Nome, which overlooks the Bering Strait, is much closer to Russia.
And if Russia has its way, someday it could get a whole lot closer.
According to a report this week in the Siberian Times, the director of state-run Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, presented a grand vision of what would be the world’s longest road at a recent meeting with the Russian Academy of Science. He reportedly wants what’s described as a “mega road” connected to a high-speed railway that would bring together three continents, linking some of the most isolated people on the planet.
“This is an interstate, inter-civilization, project,” said Yakunin, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He said the plan, which would feed into roadways leading to Europe, would undoubtedly cost in the trillions. But don’t fret, fiscal hawks. “Economic returns would outweigh these investments,” the Siberian Times reported. The name: Trans-Eurasian Belt Development. A cynic might ask how such a project would traverse more than 50 miles of frigid water separating Alaska and Russia. As of Thursday morning, that was unclear.
But it has come up before. In 2007, reports emerged saying the Russian government had just approved a $65 million proposal to build a tunnel running underneath the Bering Strait. It’s unclear what exactly happened to that money, considering that no tunnel, as of now, is underway.
Four years passed. Then rose more chatter of this super avenue that would connect London to the United States. This time, the word was that Russia had “given the thumbs up,” as the Daily Mail put it, for the construction of a multibillion-dollar tunnel that would help bridge worlds.
This time, the gossip even reached the U.S. State Department, leading to a semi-hilarious exchange at one news conference. According to Forbes, the discussion went down like this:
Said a State Department spokesman: “This is, as you understand it, a tunnel that would link Russia and the U.S. —
Said reporter: “And the U.S., yes.”
“—all the way across Bering?”
“… I don’t know where we are on that.”
Now, four years later, it’s still unclear where we are on that. As of now, there’s not even a movement to build any roads connecting Nome to the rest of Alaska, which would appear to be a pretty central component to Russia’s grand vision. The last progress on that occurred during the Sarah Palin administration, which in 2009 commissioned a study on the feasibility, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.But the price tag came back in 2011 — $3 billion — and Gov. Sean Parnell (R) put the kibosh on the plan. “That kind of money just doesn’t exist,” Alaska’s top highway planner told the Alaska Dispatch News.
So: Your play, Russia. One of the key objectives of the Russian plan appears to be trying to stitch together its own sprawling hinterlands. “Recently, I returned from Khabarovsk, where I met with rectors of universities of the Far East, about 100 of them in total,” Yakunin said at the conference, according to the Siberian Times. “The main problem that we discussed was isolation. Up to 30 percent of talented young people graduating from schools [there] leave these regions.”
The director of the Russian Academy of Science said it was a swell idea: “It will solve many problems in the development of the vast region. It is connected with social programs, and new fields, new energy resources, and so on. The idea is that basing on the new technology of high-speed rail transport we can build a new railway near the Trans-Siberian Railway with the opportunity to go to Chukotka and Bering Strait and then to the American continent.”He conceded, however, that such a plan would be “very ambitious and expensive.” You could say that again.