This year work is scheduled to start on one of the most ambitious projects in the history of civil engineering: the suspension bridge over the Strait of Messina. For the present Italian government the laying of the first stone will be a moment for cork-popping. According to environmental groups, on the other hand, it will herald the start of a wildlife holocaust.

The bridge is the jewel in prime minister Silvio Berlusconis programme for improving the Italian transport infrastructure, although the project itself has been under discussion for about three decades. Tenders have now been awarded to the northern Italian firm Impregilo formerly the construction unit of Fiat as general contractor, and to United States firm Parsons for project management consultant.

The bridge will be 3,690 m long. This is more than 60 per cent longer than the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in Japan (1,991 m), currently the longest suspension bridge in the world. There will be six traffic lanes (two for normal traffic and one emergency lane in each direction), two railway tracks and two pedestrian walkways. Designed to handle 4,500 vehicles an hour and 200 trains a day, it will replace slow ferry services, making it possible to get from Reggio Calabria, on the toe of the Italian peninsular, to Sicily in a matter of minutes.

The project will undoubtedly enhance Italys image, showing it is still a major international force capable of realising breathtaking achievements, and should produce a string of benefits. The work generated will provide a much-needed boost to the southern Italian economy, especially in Sicily and Calabria, which are two of Italys poorest regions. According to Stretto di Messina SpA, the company in charge of overseeing the bridges construction, the project will create at least 40,000 jobs. It will also make Sicily easier to reach and, therefore, should enable the island to exploit better its delightful natural, artistic and architectural treasures for tourism. Berlusconi said the construction site alone will be a tourist attraction, like a huge cinema set. Furthermore, the bridge is the final part of a major new European transport route, the Corridor 1 Berlin-Palermo, a fast railway axis from Germany, through the proposed Brenner base tunnel in Austria and down through Italy to Palermo. So, in a very real sense it will drag Sicily out of its isolation, bringing it closer to the rest of Italy and Europe. Berlusconi said the bridge will make Sicily 100 per cent Italian.

Sicily is, of course, also home to the Cosa Nostra mafia, while the Calabrian equivalent, the Ndrangheta, lives on the other side of the strait. The project has been dogged by concerns over potential mafia involvement since it was unveiled in 1996. In the past, organised crime has muscled into large building projects in southern Italy and prosecutors have already launched probes into alleged mafia attempts to land lucrative bridge-related contracts. Supporters of the project counter that the authorities guard is high and that the strait of Messina bridge is such a high-profile project that mafia groups will want to stay away from the public and media attention it attracts. Besides, they argue, the state cannot be cowed by organised crime gangs into excluding part of the country from its infrastructure plans.

Other concerns regard the bridges cost and its effective usefulness. According to Stretto di Messina SpA it will cost 4.6 billion, although these things rarely stay within budget and there are estimates that the real bill will be nearer to 6.5 billion. Around 20 per cent of funding will come from the European Union (EU), with the rest to be split 50-50 between the Italian state and private investors. Many argue this is an absurd amount to spend on a cathedral in the desert when the rest of the local rail and road system is in such a poor state. Wouldnt the money be better spent on more basic projects, they ask. Even junior environment minister Francesco Nucara admitted there is little sense in building the bridge without first upgrading transport infrastructure on each side. Its like someone putting on a tie without a shirt, he said.

There are safety worries too. Some argue it is risky to build a suspension bridge in an area that is characterised by high winds and strong currents and is prone to earthquakes. The experts say these eventualities have been taken into account it is supposedly designed to withstand an earthquake of 7.2 on the Richter scale.*

Perhaps the biggest objection concerns the environmental impact of the structure. Capo Peloro, a sparsely populated headland on the Sicilian side, has been at the centre of environmentalists concerns about the effects of the project. The area, known for its rich bird and animal life, lies only a few kilometres from the site chosen for the Sicilian end of the bridge. Whats more, large swathes of land affected by the scheme on both sides were recently granted special EU protected status owing to their unique bird and wildlife populations. Environmentalists say that the bridge plan has to be rethought as it was drawn up before these areas were re-classified. There are also fears that the bridge pylons will get in the way of the underground water tables as the pylons would go through them and disrupt water flows to lakes. The EU has threatened to withdraw its contribution if it does not receive further environmental guarantees.

If the protests that have met the start of work on the TAV high-speed railway link in Piedmont are anything to go by, the Messina bridge is in for a torrid time. Whats more, the centre-left LUnione coalition has said it will scrap the project if elected to government on 9 April. Nevertheless, transport minister Pietro Lunardi promises the bridge will be ready to open on schedule in 2012. Believe that when you see it.

* The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Messina on 28 December 1908, killing about 200,000 people, is estimated to have registered 7.5 on todays Richter scale.