The economic affairs ministry has started the process of a long-term state plan assessing direct transport links, meaning a bridge, in two possible locations, or a tunnel, between mainland Estonia and the islands of Saaremaa and Muhu.
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center) submitted an application for the initiation of a special state plan and strategic environmental assessment for the establishment of a permanent connection across the Suur Strait (Estonian: Suur väin).
The Suur Strait lies between Muhu and mainland Estonia and also links the Väinameri, a bay encircled by the islands of Muhu, Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Vormsi, and the Gulf of Riga.
Plans for a bridge have been touted for years, with residents of Saaremaa at least, reportedly largely in favor of it. One of the main questions has been funding, with the possibility of using Chinese capital having been on the table in recent years, as well as that from companies both local and international.
Seven- to ten-year plan phase
Taavi Aas told ERR Thursday morning that the special plan aims to determine the viability of establishing permanent connection and on which route.
The special plan could be drawn out for seven to 11 years, as opposed to the normal two to three years for such plans, and the involvement of local residents is very important, Aas said.
"It is common knowledge that the people of Saaremaa are in favor of a permanent connection, but those on Muhu are more opposed. On the other hand, it is very important how the various environmental impacts are assessed; this depends on whether a public connection is possible or not," Aas told ERR.
Aas said that the bridge would ideally be funded via a public-private partnership (PPP) project.
In order to decide on the establishment of a permanent connection, a special state plan must be prepared in advance, whose application Aas has submitted, together with a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).
The planning area includes the villages of Võiküla, Kuivastu, Mõega, Oina, Rässa, Tusti and Võlla in the Muhu municipality of Saare County, and the settlements of Virtsu, Hanila and Esivere in Pärnu county. The total size of the planning area stands at 9.2 km2.
A bridge would cost a minimum of €390 million, a tunnel, €620 million
ERR reports the application states there are currently no known environmental, geological or other factors which would preclude the implementation of a special state plan for planning the permanent connection.
Socio-economic analysis conducted in 2018 found that all alternatives to the existing fixed link, including the continuation with the ferry connection, would be profitable.
A link to the south, with a 8,150-meter link, would cost €390 million, with maintenance €6 million. The second option, a bridge to the north, would be 6,680 meters long, but would cost significantly more, or € 584 million, and the maintenance cost would be € 9.6 million.
A tunnel would range in length from 7400-8450 meters, but would be the most expensive option as regards construction costs, at €620 million, and carry the highest maintenance costs too, at €12 million.
Preparation of the national special plan, its ordering and the costs associated with the impact assessment would additionally cost €15-40 million, with a special plan total duration of 7-11 years.
Financing options would follow the speical plan, though earlier analysis found government loans or bonds most advantageous for the state in terms of cash flow, with a PPP scheme being the most expensive choice.
Impact on population, economy and environment
The explanatory memorandum to the request states the importance of assessing the impact on the population and environment of the two islands. The most influential factor is the development of the labor market, it says. Other factors, including quality of life, have a more indirect effect, though mobility is key among these.
"It would be easier for those who move out of Saare County (Saaremaa and Muhu-ed.) to visit friends and relatives. Easier connection with the mainland and friends and relatives can be just as important for those who want to move to Saare County. The effects of a permanent connection can therefore be two-way," the application read, according to ERR's online news in Estonian.
Tourism would see the greatest impact from the connection coming to fruition, though it is also noted that the creation of better transport connections across the strait would generally contribute to increasing the temporal and spatial availability of goods and services through more efficient supply chain management, the application stated.
The Väinameri bird and nature area, both of which are part of the European Union Natura 2000 network, are located in the area of the proposed construction of the permanent connection, which is also a consideration.
"[The nature area] has many important bird feeding zones, with more than a million waterfowl flying through during the migration period. The most important natural values which could be affected by the permanent connection are marine habitats, migratory waterfowl and seals. There are also important spawning and migratory areas for many fish species," the application explained.
During the construction phase, pollutants (especially heavy metals) reaching the soil could have an impact on geological conditions, it was stated.
Potential impact on noise is also a consideration.
Ferry connection at least until 2026
The islands' current ferry connection is not jeopardized for the next few years, since the state entered into an agreement with TS Laevad to serve the Virtsu-Kuivastu line between the mainland and the island of Muhu, using the Piret and Tõll ferries, to September 30 2026, with a third vessel, the Regula, being added during the peak summer season.
In a letter sent to the Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center), Taavi Aas said that, regardless of whether the ferry service will continue with existing or new vessels after 2026, the option of abandoning the fixed connection in favor of the ferry service needs also to be assessed.
At present, air links have been operated by Lithuanian carrier Transaviabaltika, though these connections have been subject to disputes surrounding the renewal of the tender. WIth the coronavirus emergency situation, travel to Saaremaa is barred to all except island residents at present.
Process started in 1997
The feasibility of establishing a permanent connection across the Suur Strait between the island of Muhu and the mainland has been considered for decades.
A more focused process began in 1997, when the then-Saare County Governor formed a commission to plan research and feasibility studies.
In the period 1998–2005, several studies were carried out: Geological surveys, a feasibility study for a fixed link and an environmental impact assessment. In addition, the economic feasibility of a fixed link was conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2001, and the cost of bridge alternatives was assessed in the same year.
In 2003, the government formed a committee of experts on the Suur Stait fixed link.
In 2011, a "Plan for the Perspective of Passenger and Cargo Transport across the Great Strait" prepared by the government was completed in order to provide the most suitable way to cross the strait. A strategic environmental assessment (SEA) was carried out during the preparation of the plan.
The final report of this plan proposed three route alternatives for the strait's fixed link: (1) a northern bridge, (2) a southern bridge and (3) a tunnel.
The plan has not been approved, but aspects of it are reflected in the Saare County and Lääne County plans, established by the Minister of Public Administration.
Additionally, the Road Administration (Maanteeamet) has requested the assessment of the strait's financial and socio-economic impact, which was updated in 2018.
Several surveys of residents and entrepreneurs' opinions have also been conducted. The Road Administration conducted two of these in 2012 and this year.
Editor: Andrew Whyte