A new Bosphorus bridge is fast becoming Istanbul's most contested project – not least because the government will stop at nothing to get it built.
The fires started on Friday. Beginning in the forests on the Asian side of Turkey’s Bosphorus Straits, flames reduced five hectares of woodland to ash, their plume of smoke blotting out visibility on a nearby highway filled with cars heading into Istanbul. Such minor summer disasters happen naturally at times all around the Mediterranean, but around Turkey’s largest city nothing seems to be that straightforward anymore. The fires appeared to be set off in five places, suggesting arson, while the forests they burned were in the area where Istanbul’s third Bosphorus Bridge is set to be constructed, a prime site for development that’s been made all the more prime by the bridge’s planned arrival.
No one is explicitly linking the fires with the government, but the bridge is fast becoming the most contested project among the many challenged by Turkey’s protestors – not least because it seems the government will stop at nothing to get it built. Authorities maintain that the bridge is essential to the further growth Istanbul’s economy, which has been buoyant compared to Turkey’s stricken neighbors. Opponents say it will destroy one of the region’s last green areas and, rather than solving traffic problems, just attract more cars to a city that hasn’t as yet completed a metro link between its European and Asian halves. Even the bridge’s name is controversial: the plan is to name it after former Sultan Selim the Grim, known for expanding the Ottoman empire but also for massacring thousands of members of Turkey’s still embattled Alevi religious minority.With the laws changed and the country’s development advisory sidelined, the brakes are now off.
Sensing the project under attack, the government has been using new legislation as its main weapon. The Turkish parliament is tabling a law that will exempt major projects from submitting to an Environmental Impact Assessment, a move mentioned quietly in this pro-bridge report. An EIA is no minor bureaucratic hurdle, it’s a basic, essential building block of any major project, along with the standard cost/benefit analysis. As well as calculating what stresses the bridge might cause to the area, it would be an essential step if the project were to gain foreign credit.
Bypassing this standard, vital step is just the sort of thing the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers would protest strongly – except that in another coup the government removed the Chamber’s power to contest any city planning decisions earlier this month. With the laws changed and the country’s development advisory sidelined, the brakes are now off.
That doesn’t mean the government isn’t listening to public protest. They’re just not admitting it publicly. Municipalities around the proposed bridge site received a letter last month suggesting that the route will be changed. Could this be a response to public pressure? It’s hard to say, because there’s been an official denial that any change has taken place at all, let alone any details of what those changes might be.
Whether or not all this bridge trouble is a sign of a government gone off the democratic rails is moot. Crucially, the new laws concentrating power in government hands have passed through an elected parliament. It’s hard to see the democratic benefit, however, in harassing and sidelining any group that questions government decisions, in criminalizing dissent, in dispensing with any planning process that might offer a challenge, in whittling away at civil society until what’s left is hollow and flimsy. Istanbul’s third bridge risks becoming a monument to growing autocracy, as all the while new fires in Istanbul’s forests keep burning.
Top image: Mehmet Cetin/Shutterstock.com
The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, Istanbul's third bridge linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, opened on Friday in a ceremony that was attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.
The bridge, built above the northern part of the Bosporus Strait, was named after 16th century Ottoman Sultan Selim I, whose rule marked the expansion of the empire's burgeoning world power in the Middle East.
We are connecting continents," Erdoğan said in his speech. "We are celebrating together and we are very proud of it. The nation deserves this. This is a great and joyful day."
Erdoğan, who along with Yıldırım was among the first to cross the bridge, said it would "pioneer" further projects, such as a canal linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and another Europe-Asia bridge at the Dardanelles.
The president used the occasion to attack Daesh, which killed 54 people in a suicide bombing at a wedding in the southern city of Gaziantep on Aug. 20.
"Do not regard what is written on their so-called flag," he said, referring to the terror group's white-on-black standard that carries the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammed.
"Those terrorists cannot be Muslim. They are manipulating children by using them as suicide bombers. When asked, they claim that they are acting in the name of Islam. However, they have nothing to do with Islam. There is absolutely no room for such cruelty in our religion, because our religion is a religion of peace." The president said he would visit Gaziantep on Sunday.
Referring to the Battle of Malazgirt on Aug. 26, 1071, which saw the Seljuk Turks defeat a Byzantine army and open the way for Turkish domination in Anatolia, Erdoğan added: "We have been here for a thousand years. The most significant qualification of our ancient history is that we would overcome every challenge by acting in unity as a nation."
"It will not only serve to Istanbul but also serve to every journey in the historic Silk Road, starting from the Far East, ending in Europe and bringing civilizations together by connecting people," PM Yıldırım also told a crowd of dignitaries.
The ceremony was also attended by Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus President Mustafa Akıncı, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov as well as other senior officials from Pakistan, Georgia and Serbia.
Named after Selim I, the bridge accompanies the July 15 Marytrs' Bridge -- previously the Bosphorus Bridge -- and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge in crossing the Bosphorus.
All trucks and heavy-duty vehicles will be directed to the bridge to ease traffic on the other bridges, as well as cut congestion and pollution in Istanbul.
Turkey's government has guaranteed operators that 135,000 automobiles will use the bridge each day. The fee for automobiles going from the European to the Asian side will be TL 9.90 ($3.40).
There will be no charge for passage from the Asian to the European side.
The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge cost nearly $3 billion and is a critical section of the Northern Marmara Highway.
While last preparations for the opening of the bridge were being made, noting that the bridge was a magnificent work of art, Yıldırım said in his visit to the bridge in early August: "It is not just a bridge. It has eight lanes of motorway and two lanes of railway in the middle. Consisting of 10 lanes in total, it is the broadest spanning suspension bridge in the world. It is also the highest suspension bridge in the world, with the world's highest tower at a height of 322 meters." Pointing out that its design was different than that of the 15 July Martyrs' Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, Yıldırım said the project is a hybrid with both vertical and horizontal wiring and the towers are not vertical but make the shape of an "A" consisting of two piers connecting in the middle. "Therefore, the bridge has many firsts and features. It is not just a transportation tool, but it also has an identity, a spirit. It is a project with engineering value," Yıldırım said.
Recalling that the bridge has a 217-kilometer-long highway along with the main and access roads following the bridge, Yıldırım said: "It is sometimes called the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge and access road. It is better to call it the Northern Highway. Istanbul's Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge is connected to the TEM highway, while the July 15 Martyrs' Bridge is connected to E-5. The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, on the other hand, constitutes Istanbul's outmost highway by going across the northernmost part of the Bosporus." He added that a vehicle entering from Kınalı on the European Side could arrive after passing Sultanbeyli Kurtköy on the Anatolian Side and later continue on to Bursa and İzmir or İzmit via the Osman Gazi Bridge.
Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge was completed within a record-breaking 27 month time frame, nine months ahead of schedule, according to Transportation, Maritime and Communications Minister Ahmet Arslan, speaking to journalists last weekend. The project is first of its kind completed in such a time frame and could break a world record, according to Arslan.
Continuing by saying that the bridge was constructed in accordance with the build-operate-transfer model without the use of any public resources, Arslan said it would reduce fossil fuel emissions by easing Istanbul's heavy traffic burden as well as environmental problems.
Pointing out that the process has been closely monitored by the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs and the General Directorate of Forestry, Arslan said nearly 300,000 trees were transferred to other places and 2.5 million trees have already been planted in their place. He also added that 10,000 trees have been planted daily, along with 5.1 million trees which will be planted along the route.
Arslan declared that the projects were not only conducted with the help of bureaucrats and company owners but also with the contributions, tremendous leg work and the brilliant mind work of Turkish engineers, technicians and many others.
More than 6,500 workers and engineers worked diligently on the construction of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. The total length of the bridge is 2,164 meters. The bridge, which stretches 1,408 meters over the Bosporus, has eight lanes of highway and two lanes of railway. It will be the longest suspension bridge in the world that includes a rail system. The height of the tower in the village of Garipçe on the European side is 322 meters and the tower in the Poyrazköy district on the Asian side is 318 meters high. The bridge will have the highest abutments in the world.
The rail system crossing the bridge will run from Edirne to İzmit, will be integrated into the Marmaray and Istanbul Metro and will also connect Istanbul Atatürk International Airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport and the third airport, also currently under construction.
Turkey's other mega projects
In 2015, Turkey raised the bar with the financial closure of seven projects totaling a record $44.7 billion according to data released by the World Bank Group's Private Participation in Infrastructure Database.
The Eurasia tunnel, which is the second underwater project in Istanbul after Marmaray (a railway tunnel underneath the Bosporus Strait that transported about 21 million passengers in the first six months after its inauguration in October 2013), is scheduled to open on Dec.20.
The tunnel will connect the Kazlıçeşme neighborhood on the European side with Göztepe on the mega city's Asian side and cut travel time between the two congested areas to 15 minutes. Expanding current motorways and constructing connecting roads should also be completed this year.
Istanbul's third airport
Istanbul's third airport is under construction in the Arnavutkoy district of Istanbul, on the city's European side.
Kanal Istanbul is an artificial sea route that will be built parallel to the Bosporus and will connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.
The canal will provide relief to shipping traffic, particularly oil tanker traffic, passing through the Bosporus. The canal has a designed capacity of 160 vessels a day and is scheduled to be completed by 2023 at a cost of $15 billion.
Istanbul Finance Center
The center is aimed at developing the conditions required for Istanbul to rank among the leading financial centers of the world. The $2.6 billion project is integral to Turkey's plan to make its economy one of the world's 10 largest.