Passions run high over Belgian bridge plan

Wed Nov 11, 2009 7:58pm EST
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By Greg Roumeliotis

ANTWERP (Reuters) - The Lange Wapper is a mischievous shape-shifting giant who in Flemish folklore taunts the people of Antwerp. So it was perhaps not the most fortunate choice of name for a planned major bridge for the city.

The 2.5 billion euro ($3.75 billion) plan has support from many companies around Europe's second largest port: Antwerp's Chamber of Commerce says 95 percent of its members back it. It would attract private capital in partnership.

But despite being touted by proponents as an opportunity to create a landmark for Antwerp to rival the likes of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and Sydney's Harbour Bridge, the plan to span the old harbour sits on a political faultline.

Many Antwerpers complain that the political powerhouse of Flanders -- French-speaking Brussels -- is seeking to impose its will on the Flemish economic engine in the Dutch-speaking north.

Rejected by a referendum, the project 20 years on the drawing board is already generating recriminations and law suits: more may be in the pipeline as the row intensifies.

"Brussels has put their plan on the table and say 'it's this or nothing,'" says Christian Leysen, one of only a handful of executives in the port area to publicly oppose the 1.5 kilometer cable-stayed bridge, to be supported by 110-meter high pylons.

"You have to be strong enough to say, 'sorry, this will not do.'"

From his boardroom in the high-rise headquarters of Ahlers, his logistics and maritime services company, he can see clearly where the bridge would be built. It will not cross Antwerp's main river, the Scheldt, but will link to a tunnel beneath the river. Leysen's protest has been criticized by other executives.   Continued...

<p>Logistics and maritime services company Ahlers' Chief Executive Officer Christian Leysen poses in his office near the port of Antwerp, October 16, 2009. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir</p>