ISTANBUL // In an effort to ease ever-growing traffic problems in Istanbul, a metropolis of more than 12 million people, the Turkish government has revealed plans to build a third giant bridge spanning the Bosphorus, to the dismay of critics who say the project will be a waste of money and destroy precious natural resources.
"The aim of the third bridge is to bring east-west transit traffic to Thrace, to Europe, without going into the city [of Istanbul]," Binali Yildirim, the transport minister, told reporters last week. He said he would not disclose the exact place of the planned bridge and the new roads that are to connect it with Turkey's existing motorway system to prevent real-estate speculation. "We plan to open tenders in September," he said.
The minister's announcement drew fire from opposition politicians, while other critics announced they would take the plans for the bridge to the courts as soon as the tenders were opened. As the political and legal battle lines are drawn, the debate about the new bridge in Istanbul shows how difficult it is to strike a balance between economic development and the preservation of a city's character.
With an estimated 140 million vehicles passing over the two existing bridges spanning the Bosphorus this year, supporters of the new bridge say that projections of traffic growth in the next few decades mean that Istanbul needs an additional bridge to create more transit capacity over the straits between Asia and Europe. But critics say the basic ideas about traffic management in the metropolis have to change because otherwise Istanbul will need not only one, but many more additional bridges.
Given current trends, the number of vehicles that cross from one continent to the other every year will reach 450 million by the year 2020, said Semih Tezcan, a civil engineering professor at Istanbul's Bosphorus University. Prof Tezcan based his calculations on figures from 2000, when 130 million vehicles used the two existing bridges. "If we say that one bridge has a capacity of 65 million vehicles, we will need seven bridges by 2020," he told the Vatan newspaper. That is why the new bridge will not end Istanbul's traffic problems, he added.
According to the transport ministry, the new six-lane bridge, estimated to be about 1.3km in length, will be built to the north of the two existing ones, far away from Istanbul's historic centre. Unlike the two current ones, which only carry road vehicles, the new bridge will also include rail tracks. Estimated to cost about US$4bn (Dh14.7bn), the new bridge will be connected to Turkey's growing motorway systems by 300km of new roads.
The bridge is to be constructed under a build-operate-transfer model, in which private companies build the bridge and will have the right to collect tolls from vehicles using the bridge for a period of time before handing the bridge over to the state. According to news reports, the two existing bridges, built under similar models, generated revenues of about 76 million Turkish lira (Dh180m) in the first six months of the year.
When Istanbul's first bridge connecting Asia and Europe, the Bosphorus Bridge, was opened to traffic in 1973, the city had a population of about 2.5 million people. By the time the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was built in the late 1980s, the population had grown to about 5.5 million. Supporters of the new bridge say it is overdue, given that more than 12 million people live in Istanbul today. Also, the Turkish economy has grown strongly in recent years, a development that has led to an ever-growing number of commercial and private vehicles on the roads of the economic capital.
But critics of the new bridge doubt it will bring any advantages to Istanbulites caught in daily traffic jams, arguing that those problems do not stem from the overland transit traffic that Mr Yildirim referred to, but from inner-city traffic. "We have been saying for years that a rail system would be a better solution for traffic crossing the Bosphorus," Erhan Demirdizden, the head of Istanbul's chamber of city planners, said in a statement. A rail tunnel under the Bosphorus, currently under construction, is expected to carry up to 75,000 people every hour after its completion in the next decade. But the project, named Marmaray, has been plagued by delays, especially after the discovery of important archaeological sites on the European side of Istanbul.
Still, Mr Demirdizden said Marmaray would be a better way to deal with Istanbul's traffic problems than another bridge. Building the bridge would only result in an additional population increase for the city because it would attract people to places that have so far not been designated as residential zones, he said. The new bridge would also threaten vital water reservoirs for Istanbul. "The experience of the two earlier bridges has shown that every new bridge means an increase in population," Mr Demirdizden said. "Estimates say that Istanbul's population will rise to 25 million after the construction of the [new] bridge." He said he regarded plans for the new bridge "not as a transport project, but as a real estate and moneymaking project".
Istanbul's chamber of construction engineers said it would take the plans for the new bridge to court because the project has not been mentioned in existing development plans. email@example.com