Saaremaa bridge – a crazy Estonian dream 30.05.2006
A small European economic and information technology tiger, Estonia is
entering a completely new and unknown phase in its history – the country
is suddenly becoming rich. With a steady economic growth rate of 10
percent and the prospect of receiving a significant amount of aid from
the EU’s regional aid budget for 2007-2013, Estonia is eyeing
large-scale investment projects that previously seemed impossible. But
is it doing so rashly?
One such project is the Estonian government’s plan to replace the
existing well-functioning ferry connection between the mainland and
Saaremaa island with a seven kilometre long bridge. For an island of
40,000 inhabitants and its visitors, a bridge – potentially to be
completed by 2012 – would mean a shorter travel time but both the
environmental and financial costs involved are far too big to give the
project the go-ahead. With preliminary construction costs estimated to
be at least EUR 300 million, the Saaremaa bridge project would be the
largest investment ever carried out in Estonia and would be feasible for
the government only if large amounts of EU Cohesion Fund and/or
European Regional Development Fund co-financing should materialise.
site of the potential bridge lies inside the large Väinameri Important
Bird Area. The west coast of Estonia is a very unique bird area as it
lies in the centre of an important migration path. Just 10 kilometres
north of the proposed bridge site lies Matsalu natural park (a Ramsar
site since 1976) and just about the entire coastal sea area between the
mainland and the large islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa has been
nominated to be a potential Natura 2000 bird area.
migration period more than 2 million birds fly over the Suur Strait and,
unlike the well-known Öresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark, the
Saaremaa bridge would be a serious obstacle with a positioning that cuts
across the bird migration route. As visibility is often bad during the
migration season due to low clouds and fog, the bridge might pose a
significant threat for birds, especially in darkness. Protected birds
which feature in the EU’s Bird Directive annex I, such as the lesser
white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus
), smew (Mergus albellus
) and crane
), have been found in the area.
But it’s not just
migratory and nesting birds that could be affected by the bridge’s
construction. The Suur Strait is rather shallow and the bridge could
disturb the strait’s tidal flows. The construction period would also add
another threat by impacting on seabed biota. Seabed biota have never
been studied in the site but nonetheless experts preparing the
environmental impact assessment for the project concluded that there is
probably nothing valuable to be found! In such shallow waters the bridge
may also impact fish fauna (particularly on fish migration). The strait
is also famous for seals, especially the ringed seal (Phoca hispida
but could also be home to the harbour porpoise (Phocaena phocaena
is not yet very well studied.
Acute threats to the region’s rich
biodiversity are not the only concerns related to the project. The
project is just far too costly and its regional development gain for the
island is questionable. If the aim of this gargantuan project is
regional development for Saaremaa Island, wouldn’t it be considerably
cheaper to achieve the same aim with a variety of smaller projects that
could for instance directly assist local businesses on the island?
possible mitigation measure could be the construction of a tunnel
instead of a bridge but that would be even less feasible as it costs
roughly twice as much as a bridge. Although initial background studies
have been carried out with the support of ISPA-funded Technical
Assistance, the Estonian government should stop developing the idea
further. The sooner the better, otherwise more EU taxpayer millions may
well end up in the pockets of happy consultants.
Indeed, in a
meeting with environmental NGOs in March this year, the Estonian
minister of the economy Edgar Savisaar assured that no decision on the
project will be made before in-depth studies are done and all impacts
carefully considered. Referring to a preliminary cost-benefit analysis
carried out by consultants he said that he does not share the optimistic
findings and that: "the bridge will cost more than we estimate today."
Savisaar also seemed to be well informed about the huge cost overruns
that inevitably attach themselves to similar megaprojects in Europe. The
European Commission must also remain alert to the realities that
underlie such dream-like investments.