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.
“I do this out of my interest for city planning,” he said. “There have been conceptual errors made by people who did not know anything about mobility and by construction firms pushing for what serves them best.”
Gunther Dieltjens, who owns an upmarket restaurant serving mainly fish dishes in the converted ‘pump house’ in the old harbour where the dry dock was drained for ship maintenance, is already challenging the project in the courts.
“The distance of the first layer of the bridge from the ground is 20 meters and our building is 11 meters high, so you can imagine how close it would pass,” he said.
A high-profile “no” campaign -- including an advert showing children smoking to portray the threat to health in bringing traffic so close to people’s homes -- resulted in rejection by 59 percent of those voting in the October referendum.
But the vote is not binding.
The project’s proponents, who include the Christian Democrats, the largest party in the Flemish government, argue the bridge is the only viable option in tackling deteriorating traffic congestion in the city. Antwerp contributes more than a fifth of Belgium’s economic output.
The Flemish government has to decide by January if it will press on with the Lange Wapper. The referendum was based on a simple yes or no vote and did not include alternatives.
Banks had lined up to finance the masterplan including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, HSBC, ING Groep, Dexia and KBC.
The state-owned public company in charge of procuring the project, Beheersmaatschappij Antwerpen Mobiel (BAM), has already signed pre-contractual agreements with a consortium of builders and engineers, on the assumption the bridge will be built.
Europe’s largest construction firm, Vinci, which is leading the project consortium named Noriant, could sue the Flemish state if the project is taken away from them.
On the night of the referendum, as the results came in, BAM’s chairman Jan van Rensbergen pointed out that the turnout was low at 35 percent and maintained that the bridge variant had to go ahead.
“The congestion at the moment is costing Antwerp’s economy 75 million euros a year,” he said in an interview.
Noriant’s project director Lode Franken said its objective remained to complete the project: “You need to keep in mind that about 10,000 jobs are, directly or indirectly, linked to this project,” he said.
Retired advertising executive Wim van Hees sat at his kitchen table and angrily skimmed through the latest leaflet sent to households in Antwerp.
“It is a dictat coming from outside Antwerp,” fumed Van Hees, one of the figureheads of the campaign against the bridge.
He pointed to a digitized image of the docks on the cover that he said creates a false impression of the bridge’s route.
“It has nothing to do with the wellbeing of our city and its implementation was a totally undemocratic decision,” he said.
Van Hees is the former boss of Antwerp’s socialist mayor, Patrick Janssens, who worked at his advertising agency and has recently reversed a former position as supporter of the project.
Janssens said he changed his mind when a study by consultancy Arup in March found alternatives to the bridge.
“I initially defended the project, even (though) I was not in favor of it, because I thought it was going to happen anyway,” said Janssens.
Planning officials outside the battle say the fight offers procurement lessons for public authorities across Europe.
The Lange Wapper’s main advocate, BAM -- which was set up in 2003 to implement a masterplan for mobility as the technocratic answer to unstable coalition politics -- failed to engage with local residents and eventually became seen as too close to the construction consortium, Noriant.
“If you want to avoid problems, you need to engage stakeholders from day one,” said Kurt Van Dender, chief economist at the Joint Transport Research Center of the OECD and the International Transport Forum.
As opposition to the project rose over the years, so did project cost estimates, skyrocketing to 2.5 billion euros from 500 million.
But with traffic on Antwerp’s ring road already swelling to 250,000 vehicles per day, alternatives to the bridge could take at least three more years to procure, setting back a project vital for the city’s economy.
“If they choose a tunnel rather than a bridge it would be a burden for me as it would pass right where my building is,” said port company boss Leysen.
“But I would bear that burden because the national flows of transport should not pass via the inner city.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith