ROME, Aug. 11 (Xinhua) -- Ambitious Italian plans to build a tunnel to connect the southern island region of Sicily to the Italian mainland began to take shape Tuesday, with a 5-billion-euro (5.9-billion-U.S.-dollar) project to be paid for out of Italy's portion of the European Union Recovery Fund.
Government officials on Tuesday unveiled the first few details about the project, which, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport said will take at least five years to develop. The initiative is based on a 2017 plan developed by engineer Giovanni Sacca.
Once complete, the tunnel would provide for easy automobile traffic between Calabria and Sicily, while also allowing the country's high-speed train network to be extended south to Palermo, Italy's fifth-largest city and by far the largest city in the country without high-speed train service.
Today, the high-speed network stops in Salerno, a coastal city around 50 kilometers southeast of Naples, and vehicles and train cars making the crossing to Sicily must be loaded onto barges and then unloaded on the other side.
At its narrowest point, the Straits of Messina that run between the southernmost point on the Italian mainland, in the region of Calabria, and the shores of Sicily is just 3.1 kilometers wide. Engineers dating back as far as the ancient Romans and into modern times have been tempted to bridge the two sides.
But from the start projects have run into problems due to water running as deep as 250 meters, fast-moving currents, and more recently because of environmental impacts and worries that the economic benefits of the project would not justify the high cost.
In a briefing, Deputy Minister of Transport Giancarlo Cancelleri on Tuesday called the current situation a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" because Italy could use money from the nearly 210-billion-euro payout from the Recovery Fund announced last month. Italy's share of the 750-billion-euro fund is larger than that of any other country.
Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Paolo De Micheli said the country was in the process of drafting a proposal for the plan that would be presented to the European Commission, which has to give its stamp of approval to any projects that use cash from the Recovery Fund.