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Saaremaa bridge – a crazy Estonian dream 30.05.2006

Bankwatch Mail, lehekülg 9

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.

The 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.

During the 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 (Grus grus), 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) which 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?

One 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.