Germans, Danes to ink deal on Baltic Sea bridge

"The Fehmarn Strait bridge is coming," proclaimed German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, referring to a 19-kilometre Baltic Sea link between Germany and Denmark.

To make sure it does, Tiefensee is scheduled to travel to Copenhagen on Wednesday to ink the final agreement together with his Danish counterpart, Carina Christensen.

The signing will cap years of talks that at times seemed headed nowhere. If all goes well, in 10 years cars and trains will be rolling between Puttgarden, on the German island of Fehmarn, and Rodby, on the Danish island of Lolland.

Tiefensee reached agreement on building the giant bridge with Christensen's predecessor, Flemming Hansen, a little over a year ago.

Denmark, a kingdom whose population is almost 20 times smaller than Germany's, will shoulder 4.8 billion of the estimated 5.6-billion-euro price tag. Germany's costs are practically limited to highway and railway links to the bridge on Fehmarn and south toward Hamburg.

"It's clear that our interest in this project is greater than that of the Germans," remarked Hansen in explaining his country's disproportionately large financial stake. The bridge will cut an hour from a drive between Copenhagen and Hamburg, now about four-and-a-half hours.

Because of chronically empty state coffers and strong resistance from eastern Germany, the German government was long lukewarm toward the project, whose appeal is greatest in the northwestern state of Schleswig-Holstein, of which Fehmarn is part.

As for Denmark, its tax revenues are so plentiful in the wake of a nearly 15-year economic boom that no one there seems fazed by the huge investment and high risk to taxpayers.

Danes' optimism is driven in part by the massive flow of traffic across the Great Belt Bridge between the main Danish islands of Zealand and Fyn, and, since 2000, across the Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmo.

Christensen said the costs of the Fehmarn Strait bridge, to be borne by private investors and guaranteed by the Danish government, would definitely be recouped within a few decades.

Construction of the bridge, whose design is still largely undecided, is expected to start in 2011 and be completed in 2018.

But a number of hurdles will remain even after Tiefensee and Christensen sign the agreement.

The biggest is opposition by German environmental protectionists, who say the bridge will adversely affect birds and marine mammals such as porpoises and seals in the Fehmarn Strait.

"We'll take every opportunity to block the project," Leif Miller, managing director of the Berlin-based environmental protection organisation NABU, told Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, dpa reported.

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