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Russian, U.S. Backers Make New Push for $65B Tunnel

Fri May 18, 2007 - National Edition
Alex Nicholson - AP WRITER

MOSCOW (AP) For more than a century, entrepreneurs and engineers have dreamed of building a tunnel connecting the eastern and western hemispheres under the Bering Strait — only to be brought up short by war, revolution and politics.

Now die-hard supporters are renewing their push for the audacious plan — a $65 billion highway project that would link two of the world’s most inhospitable regions by burrowing under a stretch of water connecting the Pacific with the Arctic ocean.

Russians and Americans alike made their pitch for the project at a conference titled “Megaprojects of Russia’s East,” held April 24 in Moscow.

“It’s time to the rewrite the old slogan ’Workers of the world unite!’” said Walter Hickel, a former Alaska governor and interior secretary under President Richard Nixon. “It’s time to proclaim, ’Workers — Unite the world!’”

A Russian economics ministry official tossed cold water on the idea, saying he wanted to know who planned to pay the mammoth bill for the project before seriously discussing it. But Hickel was unfazed in his speech, saying the route would unlock hitherto untapped natural resources — and bolster the economies of both Alaska and Russia’s Far East.

The proposed 68-mi. (109 km) tunnel would be the longest in the world. It would also be the linchpin for a 3,700-mi. (5,954 km) railroad line stretching from Yakutsk — the capital of a gold- and mineral-rich Siberian region roughly the size of India — through extreme northeastern Russia, in waters up to 180 ft. deep and into the western coast of Alaska. Winter temperatures there routinely hit minus 94 F.

By comparison, the undersea tunnel that is currently the world’s longest — the Chunnel, linking Britain and France — is only 30 mi. long.

That raises the prospect of some tantalizingly exotic routes — train riders could catch the London-Moscow-Washington express, conference organizers suggested.

Lobbyists claimed the project is guaranteed to turn a profit after 30 years. As crews construct the road and rail link, they said, the workers would also build oil and gas pipelines and lay electricity and fiber-optic cables. Trains would whisk cargos at up to 60 mph 260 ft. (79 m) beneath the seabed.

Eventually, 3 percent of the world’s cargo could move along the route, organizers hope.

Maxim Bystrov, deputy head of the federal agency for managing Special Economic Zones, injected a note of sobriety to the heady talk of linking East and West by road and rail. He said his ministry would invest in the project only when private investors said they were committed to building it.

“As a ministry employee I am used to working with figures and used to working with projects that have an economic and financial base,” Bystrov said. “The word ’prozhekt’ has a negative meaning in Russian. I want this ’prozhekt’ to turn into a ’project.’”

The idea has a long history. Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, twice approved the implementation of a similar plan, perhaps eying the gold- and oil-rich territory that the Russian Imperial government had sold to the United States just before the turn of the 20th century.

The First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution doomed both attempts.

Despite the allure, there were signs Tuesday that there is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. A top economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin, as well as the Russian railway minister, who had been billed to speak, pulled out at the last minute.

The feasibility study alone would cost $120 million and would take two years to complete, organizers said. Actual construction of the road-rail-pipeline-cable effort could take up to 20 years.

Still, Vladimir Brezhnev, president of Russian construction conglomerate Transstroi, said that the technology to tackle the construction work already existed.

“Perhaps not all of us will be involved in this,” he told conference participants. “But as an engineer I wish I could be.”

A statement adopted at the conference April 24 called on the governments of Russia, the United States, Japan, China and the European Union to endorse the tunnel as part of their economic development strategies. It urged government officials to raise the issue at the G-8 summit in Germany in June.

George Koumal, president of the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group — the noncommercial organization pushing for the project — said that while many have seen England from France and vice versa across the Channel, there is little communication between the people living on either side of the Bering Strait.

“There are very few people who have stood on the beach in Alaska,” he said. “Seemingly you can stretch out your hand and touch Mother Russia.”

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