The words Italy and infrastructure have been on a collision course in public perception for more than a decade, with the common view being that Europe’s third-largest country is no longer fit to carry the mantle of Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance engineering genius.

 

This is a dangerous cliché.

 

Public opinion continuously complains about perpetual icons of dysfunction, works defined by lawmakers as a “national priority” almost 50 years ago and without an ounce of cement yet laid.

 

There are problems, to be sure. A 1970s law in order to comply with Government deficit effectively put a long block on road construction, hampering the national network. The country’s small-is-beautiful business ethos has led to missed opportunities in a host of fields.

 

A century ago Italy was a prodigious force in engineering. Not only had the first Gotthard tunnel connecting Italy with Switzerland been completed, but so had the great Appenine tunnel between Bologna and Florence, built to be as straight as possible and as a result requiring a host of tunnels to avoid the up-and-down topography that impeded freight traffic. For the record, that project took six years to complete and entailed removing around 700,000 cubic meters of earth – not the solid rock of the Alps but the clay and sand schists of the Appenines, one of the most challenging soil types for tunnels, and full of dangerous smethane emissions to boot.

 

This same stretch has been very much the center of attention of late. A 62-kilometer section for Italy’s new high-speed trains was finished in 2009 after five years of work – preceded by eight of bureaucratic struggle after initial approval - moving 1 million cubic meters of earth to create almost 12 kilometers of tunnels, each of them 85 square meters across.

 

The highway section between the two cities also needed updating to accommodate contemporary traffic volumes. This project, known as the Variante di Valico, has been on the table for decades. And it is this that has just been completed, with Autostrade as the project commissioner. Stripping out the 15 years of bureaucratic delays, the 59-kilometer project, a full half of which consists of tunnels, was done in nine years. Almost 8 million cubic meters of excavation were required, eight times the amount of the revamped rail link.

 

The size of this project was particularly huge due to what one of its financial backers, the European Investment Bank, called “one of the most complex geological areas in Europe.” The map crossed an area with high seismic risk, the highest risk of landslides in all of Italy, and soil checkered with explosive gas deposits and unpredictable water flows.

 

Its scope was also particularly huge: The old A1 Highway of the Sun stretch between Florence and Bologna wound its way through the mountains and was very well known in the country for frequent delays continuously broadcasted by the media, due to crowded conditions exacerbated by vulnerability to traffic jams and adverse weather conditions. The new stretch is not just shorter and develops for more than 50 percent in tunnels, but its design will trim 20 minutes off the commute; because it rises 230 meters less than the old A1 Highway, it will save an estimated 100 million liters of gasoline each year.

 

To accommodate that, the section on the tunnels – each of which are doubled – is a whopping 180 square meters, with an even larger 200 square meters for the Sparvo tunnel, which was achieved with the largest tunnel-boring machine ever built in Europe.

 

The “Martina”, built by Herrenknechtt on commission for Toto Costruzioni, weighs more than 9 Boeing 747 jets, and could churn away up to 22 meters of earth each day, about 25 times the pace achievable by traditional excavation methods.

 

Given the volatile topography of the Appenines, the Variante di Valico project in many ways outshines the new Gotthardo rail tunnel. That replacement gallery is 57 kilometers long – with two 72-square-meter sections – and entailed removing 7.9 million cubic meters of rock. It took 17 years to complete.

 

To be sure, one of the most suggestive European infrastructure projects of all time is the so-called Channel linking France and the U.K. First conceived 200 years ago by a French designer who thought a lamplit horse-drawn carriage path under the Channel would be clever, the actual project was built with conviction, taking only a bit more than five years in a massive binational effort. In its operating lifetime it has moved more than four times the entire population of the United Kingdom from one side of the channel to the other, putting paid to legendary comments about which side is really cut off amid fog.

 

In fact the 50.5 kilometer Channel Tunnel, about three-fourths of which is below sea level, has a maximum depth of 75 meters, a dis-level that is less than that of the Valico project. The tunnel sections are relatively modest, and the project’s speed was aided by no fewer than 11 tunnel-boring machines.

 

It required 8 million cubic meters of earth removal, enough to create an extra 90 acres of British territory, now known as Samphire Hoe.

 

Comparison is odious, the English poet John Donne wrote centuries ago. And engineers certainly feel kinship with each other when it comes to challenging megaprojects, each of which offers an opportunity to try new methods and introduce new features – which today range from safety sensors to air-conditioning systems for use during the work of digging tunnels. Indeed, the professional world is ready to tip their hard hats upon completion of Crossrail, the vast underground project for London trains. That project, however, has been 40 years in the making, which should correct wayward claims about Italy having lost its can-do Renaissance touch.

 

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