When on January 10 the tender for the Northern Marmara Highway Project that includes the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus had to be cancelled for a lack of bidders, many an activist probably sighed in relief. Construction companies interested in taking on the task had been reluctant for a while: the first tender had been planned for August 23, 2011, but this had been postponed to January 10, 2012 at the construction companies’ request.
While some think that the financial crisis and a funding crunch were to blame for the lack of enthusiasm, others pointed to the sloppy and unclear building specifications that laid out the conditions for the Northern Marmara Highway Project as well as the lack of geological research and the missing report on the environmental impact of the project, announced as a BOT (build operate transfer) model supposed to carry both motorized vehicles and high speed trains over the Bosporus.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who as the mayor of Greater Istanbul had said in 1995 that a “third bridge would mean the murder of the city”, immediately announced that the cancellation of the tender would not mean the cancellation of the project: “There is demand for a third bridge, and nobody will be left on the road. In the worst case, we will build the bridge using the national budget. We can afford it.”
The cancellation of the tender did not come as a surprise and the minister of transportation Binali Yildirim, responsible for the project on the government’s side, seemed unfazed. In a press conference following the announcement that none of the 18 companies who had applied for a request for the proposal had actually placed a bid, he said that the government – dead set on realising the highly disputed project – would proceed to “Plan B”.
While Yildirim did not give any immediate specifications on what “Plan B” entailed, Turkish newspapers now call it the “Nuclear Model” – referring to the planned Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Mersin Province, where the Turkish government handed over the project to Russia in a memorandum of understanding signed on May 13, 2010, after no bidders had been found for the plant, and four consecutive tenders had to be cancelled.
According to the online architecture magazine Arkitera, Japan has already expressed interest in a similar deal for the Northern Marmara Highway Project that will span 414 km of road and cost an estimated 6 billion dollars to build.
A memorandum of understanding would give the AKP government the possibility to circumvent any local tender laws and other judicial obligations, many of which have already been lifted with the highly controversial, so-called “bag law” (torba yasası) that came into force on June 11, 2011, one day before the national elections: it took both the State Planning Organisation (Devlet Planlama Teşkilatı – DPT), who had previously rejected the current routing of the Northern Marmara Highway Project, and had criticised the project calculations presented by the Highway Administration as faulty and the Higher Planning Council (Yüksek Planlama Kurulu – YPK), that previously had to approve of all big construction plans, out of the loop and handed these decisions over to the Ministry overseeing the project.
This means that transportation minister Binali Yildirim will be able to single-handedly authorise 76 different construction projects currently in the pipeline, worth 45 billion dollar altogether.
Plans for a third bridge over the Bosporus have circulated since the early 1990s, with its proponents claiming that a third motorway across the water strait would ease traffic congestion and provide 350 billion dollars of profit. However, critical voices argue that it would on the contrary create more traffic and increase the number of vehicles in Istanbul. In an interview with Cumhuriyet, transportation expert Prof. Dr. Zerrin Bayraktar who is also a member of the “Platform for Life instead of a Third Bridge”, told Cumhuriyet: “When you first build a highway, there might not be any traffic. But after a while, traffic will start. That traffic creates more traffic. In the end it will spread like a cancer cell.” The Istanbul Chamber of Architects published the numbers: One year after the first Bosporus Bridge was opened in 1973, the number of vehicles crossing the strait increased by 200%. From the opening of the second Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge in 1988 until today, the number of people crossing the Bosporus increased by 170%, while the number of vehicles rose by 1,180%.
At a symposium held in 2010, civil engineer Prof. Dr. Semih Tezcan said: “The bridge traffic increases by seven percent every year. This means that we would have to build five bridges in 2010, and 15 bridges in 2015.” And he continued: “150,000 people a day can cross the bridge. Will that bring a solution to transportation problems? If there would be a rail transportation system, 1.5 million people a day could profit from it. That way, there would be no need for a bridge.”
Alternatives to a third bridge could be an increase of ferries and ferry itineraries, or underground tunnels like the Marmaray Project. Zerrin Bayraktar strongly criticised Turkey’s unwillingness to decrease motorized traffic on roads: “The biggest problem in Turkey’s transportation model is the concentration on roads. The General Directorate of Highways lauds itself for carrying 95% of all passengers and 92% of all goods on the road. If I were the General Director of Highways, I would be ashamed to admit that.” According to the Chamber of Maritime Engineers, 85% of worldwide shipping is done by waterway, but transport minister Binali Yildirim, a maritime engineer by education, does not seem to want to consider more sustainable alternatives to a third bridge.
Yıldız Uysal of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects explains that the third bridge is in violation of the Law on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage; laws concerning the Bosporus and the Turkish constitution.
Environmentalist groups also warn that the project will endanger the remaining green areas to the north of Istanbul. 80% of the project will cut through forest areas. A report published by researchers of the Forestry Faculty of Istanbul University finds that about 5,000 hectares of forest would be in danger should the Northern Marmara Highway Project be realized. Several animal and plant species home to the region would be wiped out, and the fragile ecosystem would be in serious danger. Water reservoirs supplying the city, already too few to begin with, would be in danger of drying out or becoming too contaminated to use.
Another problem of the highway and the third bridge would be the rapid urbanization of Northern green and brown fields, and therefore further urban sprawl in a megacity that already grows uncontrollably, lacking both the infrastructure and the resources to sustain such rapid growth. Calling the third bridge a “profiteering project, not a transportation project”, urban planner Erhan Demirdizen warned in 2009 that it would increase Istanbul’s population to 25 million. A report published by the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners states that migration to Istanbul would increase substantially, negatively impacting on the social fabric of the city.
“If the third bridge is built, all veins of the city will dry out, and [Istanbul] will become a murder victim”, Prof. Dr. Zerrin Bayraktar warns. It remains to be seen if criticism and the difficulties of finding investors for the project will deter the government from the Northern Marmara Highway Project or if the prospect of profit at any cost will turn Istanbul into a corpse.