Govt to Forge Ahead with World’s Longest Bridge

$10bn Project to Connect Java and Sumatra

DENPASAR/JAKARTA ~ The central government has brushed aside fears of graft and disaster to pursue plans to build the world’s largest suspension bridge – in one of the most earthquake-prone areas on earth.

The planned Sunda Strait bridge will cross at least 29 kilometers between the country’s two most populous islands, Java and Sumatra, and pass at its closest point a mere 50 kilometers from the still-active Krakatau volcano.

That volcano’s famous 1883 eruption killed an estimated 36,000 people, mostly from resulting tsunamis.

The current proposal follows the signing of an agreement between two provinces on opposite sides of the strait at the start of October, and represents the culmination of a 40-year dream of connecting the islands.

The US$10-billion bridge, which is in the “pre-feasibility” study phase, will pass over three smaller islands and include a single uninterrupted span 2.5 kilometers long.

Professor Wiratman Wangsadinata, whose consultancy is involved in the study, says the planned bridge will be around 200 kilometers from the “subduction zone” where the Australian and Asian plates come together.

Wangsadinata says that records show the maximum earthquake that can occur in the zone is 8.5 on the Richter scale. He says plans will work on the assumption that no higher earthquake can occur in that area as the biggest recorded in the region was 8.0.

The bridge will be safe, he says, but it will require international help to pull off.

“To tell you frankly, maybe our expertise domestically is not enough to solve all the problems associated with this project. So we are going to invite experts from all over the world to participate, to give advice and also active participation in the study, in the design, and later on in the construction,” he said.

Pri Hariadi, from the Indonesian Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, thinks Wangsadinata makes the right assumptions, saying: “I believe that (an earthquake) will not pass the 8.5 record.”

It will be a long time before the project can be considered safe – the pre-feasibility study is scheduled to be completed in 2009 and the feasibility study in 2013 – but if it does get the green light, it will go some way to filling Indonesia’s massive infrastructure shortfall.

The Sunda Strait is a key transit point for goods and people between the two islands.

At the moment, around 350,000 people and 25,000 vehicles cross the strait daily in a fleet of between 20 and 30 rusting ferries. The breakdown of only a handful of these ships can cause traffic to snarl for more than a dozen kilometers.

But safety is not the only concern with the plans for the bridge.

The bridge’s high price tag – and the high risk involved in such a long-term project – means there is a possibility the project will fall victim to the kind of cozy financial arrangements that plague business in Indonesia, according to economist and member of Indonesia Corruption Watch, Faisal Basri.

Basri says the head of the construction company currently pushing the bridge, Artha Graha’s Tommy Winata, will not go ahead with the project without the involvement of at least some of the nation’s big business families.

He says at least one of three big companies – the Bakrie Group, owned by the family of Coordinating Minister for the People’s Welfare Aburizal Bakrie, a member of former president Suharto’s Golkar Party; Bukaka, owned by Vice President and Golkar member Jusuf Kalla; and Bosawa, owned by Kalla’s brother-in-law, Aksa Mahmud – will be let in on the project.

“Tommy Winata of Artha Graha will cooperate with one of them – no doubt,” he said.

Wangsadinata himself is candid about the bridge’s ability to attract unsavory attention. However, he says the fact the project will be done by the private sector – and funded by foreign investment – means the risk of corruption will be much lower.

Wangsadinata says dealing with bureaucracy will be the biggest corruption risk. But even with this, he concedes he may not “succeed a hundred percent”.

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