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10 companies ready to privately finance bridges to Saaremaa, Hiiumaa

A map highlighting Saaremaa and Hiiumaa's lack of direct connections to the European mainland.
A map highlighting Saaremaa and Hiiumaa's lack of direct connections to the European mainland. Source:

Ten companies and funds would build bridges between the island of Muhu and the Estonian mainland as well as between the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa with their own funds; the way the bridges would be financed would be decided by the new government elected next spring after the completion of an impact assessment.

"There are more than ten of these companies and funds who would come today and contribute all the money themselves — they do not even have to take out a loan — and build the whole thing in two years, plus a bridge between Hiiumaa and Saaremaa," Raivo Hein, leader of the project, told BNS.

Hein first introduced the idea of building a bridge over Suur Strait in January. In the first stage, a bridge connecting Muhu and the mainland would be completed in three years, the cost of which would be up to €500 million.

The bridge connecting Hiiumaa and Saaremaa would cost half as much, as the sea level between the two islands is lower.

"The solution there could come in the form of a dam and a medium-sized suspension bridge — there is no need to build a beam bridge on supports rammed into the ground from beginning to end," Hein explained. "Rather, it would resemble the dam between the islands of Muhu and Saaremaa, in the middle of which would be a bridge."

Companies and funds from Europe, China and the US which invest in public and private sector cooperation projects and, according to Hein, would not even consider projects smaller than €100 million in cost, have expressed interest in building the bridges.

According to an impact assessment carried out by Finnish company WSP Finland in 2011, the state should finance the Saaremaa bridge project initiated under Hein's leadership with a subsidy approximately twice as large as the current ferry subsidy, and users should pay fees for approximately 50 years.

When the Saaremaa bridge returned to the agenda, the Cabinet tasked the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications with developing a new, updated analysis by next March so that the new government formed following the Riigikogu elections next spring could decide how to proceed with the establishment of the connection.

Chinese investors can't be ruled out

Accompanied by Andrus Villem and Reform Party member Kalle Laanet, representatives of the Chinese national construction company China Construction Communication Engineering Group Co. Ltd visited the island of Muhu last week and expressed readiness on the basis of a concession to build a bridge between Muhu and the mainland.

Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Centre) said at a government press conference held the following day, however, that options have been considered from the perspective of the government regarding how the Estonian state would contribute one way or another to the establishment of a permanent connection with Saaremaa, but "the involvement of third country [including Chinese] investors is not included in the analysis to my best knowledge."

Even though a new financial and socio-economic analysis ascertains the best technical alternatives and financing models for the state, Chinese investors cannot be ruled out when it comes to the construction of the Saaremaa bridges.

Namely, there are three options on the table: the construction of the bridge is financed from the incomes of the state budget, with a loan or the sale of bonds or in cooperation of the public and private sector. Should the last option be chosen, the state as a result of a public procurement will choose a concessionaire with bridge or tunnel construction references whose task it will be to find the most suitable investors for funding the project.

According to Hein, it is a question of national strategy whether Chinese money and everything else that accompanies it will be wanted here or not. The greatest interest of the Chinese is to receive a reference in the EU, the presentation of which would allow them to build large communications projects elsewhere in Europe as well.

For the same reason, Peter Vesterbacka, the former head of Finnish games developer Rovio, is also betting on Chinese investors. Vesterbacka is planning to open a tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki by Christmas 2024.

Concerns exist regarding third-country involvement

European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johanns Hahn said in an interview with Politico in July that China could turn countries in the Western Balkans region into Trojan horses that would one day be EU members, adding that China has made a series of significant investments in infrastructure projects there.

Former Minister of the Interior Kalle Laanet (Reform), who hosted the Chinese national company during its recent visit, said that the establishment of permanent connections necessitates the completion of an impact assessment and the mitigation of economic security risks. "Once all preparations have been made, I think that the excavators should be put to work as soon as possible, but this also definitely means that all risks must be mitigated and various aspects must be thoroughly deliberated," he said. "The most positive is that interest in building this kind of object has been established outside Estonia."

He said that the Chinese national builder has provided a written statement of attention, which means that the issue is being taken seriously. It is also beneficial if there are various offers on the table, as the state can then choose the best possible solution.

Islanders want stable connections

Saaremaa and Hiiumaa Municipalities, led by the Social Democratic Party (SDE), support the establishment of high-quality and stable connections between the islands and the mainland, but the question lies in how much this will impact their island identity.

At the same time, when it comes to Hiiumaa, there have been problems recently regarding ferry and air traffic: at one point, sea levels in the Rukki Channel were too low for ferries to operate, and air traffic between Tallinn and Hiiumaa was cancelled for two weeks in August due to reconstruction work at Kärdla Airport.

The route of the planned Saaremaa bridge will start from the territory of the old Virtsu fsh plant on the mainland, which is mostly made up of unused land along with old building ruins. The length of the route on land is a couple of hundred meters. On the sea, the route will run from Virtsu Harbour toward the north: first across the low part of the sea, then in parallel with the ferry route until it reaches the island of Muhu a couple of hundred meters noth of the current Kuivastu Harbour. The route will for the most part follow the current ferry route.

On the island of Muhu, the route will start north of the current Kuivastu Harbour, run along meadowy areas and join Kuivastu-Kuressaare Road west of Pädaste Road.

According to Hein's preliminary vision, full-price passenger vehicle tickets would cost €17, while permanent residents would be eligible for reduced-price tickets costing €8. Compared to current ferry ticket prices, it would be cheaper for passengers to use the bridge if there are at least three passengers in the vehicle.

The construction of the Hiiumaa bridge in the second stage would depend on the results of studies conducted after the construction of the Muhu bridge.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

Source: BNS

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