TALLINN - Engineering experts said that before Estonia can begin thinking about whether to invest in a new Saaremaa bridge or tunnel that would connect the mainland to its western islands the government must put existing transport links in order first.
"A permanent link looks attractive if the boat connection is working poorly, as is the current case," logistics specialist Enno Lend, dean of the Tallinn College of Engineering, told the Eesti Paevaleht daily.
Aare-Maldus Uustalu, a professor at Tallinn Technical University, said that because economic data provided by the current ferry operator Saaremaa Laevakompanii (Saaremaa Shipping Company) was not reliable, no feasibility studies could yet be carried out concerning the Saaremaa bridge.
Both engineers have been dealing with this particular transportation topic for decades, the newspaper wrote.
Lend said the bridge project looked particularly questionable when finances were considered. "Having a toll bridge instead of toll ferries won't remove the obstacles that are hindering the development of Saaremaa's economy now," he said.
Lend also said that investing half of the 1.5 billion (96 million euros) - 2 billion kroons that the bridge would cost into the islands' economy would ultimately bring more benefit.
The two experts argued that the government should think about implementing a fleet of newer, faster and smaller ferries for the island routes and making departures more frequent. The bulky and slow vessels that are currently being used require too much loading time.
"The money that's going to be spent on the Saaremaa bridge should be invested in the development of shipping - not in concrete," Lend stressed. "The approach so far has focused on one island only, without considering the interests of Hiiumaa residents."
As Uustalu said, "I'm not against a bridge if the people of Saaremaa so desire it, but I would like to see a complex approach and detailed surveys before any decision is made."
Uustalu and Lend also noted that air travel opportunities remained largely unused. If Finland's Aland with its 25,000 residents had 118,600 people traveling to and from the archipelago by air five years ago, then Saaremaa, which has 40,000 residents, had only 6,400.