Debates deepen around Saaremaa bridge project

  • 2002-03-14
  • Aleksei Gunter

The western island of Saaremaa, the largest in the country, may be about to swap ferry lines for a permanent connection with the Estonian mainland.

The topic has been under discussion before. But the Cabinet of the Reform and Center parties is taking the project seriously, since it was mentioned in the coalition agreement, written when they came to power two months ago.

Toivo Asmer, the regional affairs minister, ordered the National Road Administration on March 7 to make a preliminary schedule of construction works.

The road administration estimated the 1.5 billion kroon ($88 million) project will take three years to complete and 28 years to break even.

Estonia could get a loan to fund the bridge, in which case it wouldn't take a kroon from taxpayers' pockets, according to Tiina Kimmel from the Estonian National Road Administration.

He hopes an EU aid program will come up with the funding.

Saaremaa is connected with the much smaller neighboring island of Muhu by a dam five kilometers long. A ferry connects Muhu with the mainland.

According to the National Road Administration, the growing costs of ferry transportation and time loss bring companies on Saaremaa which depend on supplies from the mainland additional expenses. A bridge or a tunnel would crop the time of getting from Saaremaa to the mainland by one hour.

Out of four possible connection routes, the one crossing the tiny island of Viirelaid looks the most promising. A dam would connect Muhu and Viirelaid, and a 6,065-meter-long bridge or tunnel would stretch from Viirelaid to the mainland.

But be it a bridge or a tunnel, either would have serious pros and cons. Kimmel said that a tunnel was safer environmentally but also more expensive.

"Should it be a tunnel, the project will also have to include a ventilation system, light and a security service," he said.

A bridge - the best option for hikers and bikers to Saaremaa, a popular tourist location - would fit the current traffic scheme better as it would make the best use of an already completed highway.

But environmental experts say the peregrine birds that frequent the nearby national park of Matsalu might smash into a bridge if it stood too high above the water.

Kimmel said the next step in the project will be a poll among residents and ferry companies in the region. An earlier survey showed a great deal of interest toward the project. About 80 percent of people who used the ferry line regularly and 70 percent of the total population of Saaremaa said they would prefer to cross the strait by using a bridge or a tunnel.

According to research completed by business consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers in March 2001, risks related to the Saaremaa bridge project may be many. The biggest has been the absence of any guarantee from the state to support the project with concrete sums.

The research slated a 50 percent increase in vehicle traffic between the mainland and the island in the first year of operation. This, it said, would be the major goal of building the link.

"The question of competition is very significant and requires a clear scheme of how to regulate rivalry between the ferry lines and the possible new link with the mainland," reads the report.

Today it takes about 150 kroons ($8.50) and four to six hours to get from Tallinn to Kuressaare, Saaremaa's biggest town, by bus, which uses the ferry.

The research refers to the famous bridge between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden as a caution. This link failed to boost traffic between the two countries to the volume expected because ferry companies lowered ticket prices.

The experience of the Scandinavian bridge project has inspired opponents of the Saaremaa bridge. "It's caused huge losses. To break even the Danes need tolls, and they scare potential users away. And this in the heart of the wealthy Scandinavia," wrote Priit Hobemagi, editor-in-chief of the daily Eesti Paevaleht in an editorial last week.

"Saaremaa today is a dead-end from which there are not many places to go. Estonians and tourists can get along fine with the ferry line," he wrote.

According to the Estonian Tourist Board, those coming from neighboring Latvia think Saaremaa and its cultural capital Kuressaare a fascinating destination because of their geographical proximity and modest prices. A ferry line between Kuressaare and Riga is being discussed.