Oosterweel connection: it's a tunnel!

The Antwerp orbital ring road will be completed with a series of tunnels. The plan of constructing a huge bridge, which received the thumbs down from Antwerp voters, has finally been shelved. The decision was announced after a special meeting of key ministers of the Flemish government with a delegation of local Antwerp politicians.

The Flemish government had announced that a decision on the so-called Oosterweel link on the Antwerp orbital motorway was to be expected before 27 September.

Mr Peeters (photo) wanted to have the discussion finished before making his annual September Declaration before the Flemish Parliament on 27 September (next Monday).

In March, it was decided that the missing link could be made by a series of tunnels instead of a bridge, provided that it was technically feasible, wouldn't be more expensive and could be completed just as quickly.

All these conditions were fulfilled, except for one. Research showed that a series of tunnels would be "a little bit more" expensive, an estimated 200 to 400 million euros. Yesterday, this turned out to be "exactly" 352.7 million euros.

Issue threatened to divide the Flemish government

The issue divided the Flemish government: the Flemish nationalists of N-VA and the Christian democrats of CD&V favoured a bridge as this option would be cheaper, but the socialists of SP.A wanted to avoid the construction of the so-called Lange Wapper bridge at all cost, considering the impact on the people's health and the outcome of last year's referendum, in which local residents voted against the bridge. The Mayor of Antwerp, Patrick Janssens (photo), is of the SP.A.

Yesterday, a compromise was worked out. The N-VA and CD&V were willing to accept the tunnel option, provided that the extra cost would not be carried by the government as the Flemish budget is already under enough pressure as it is.

An accord was eventually reached on this matter, after a marathon meeting of some 12 hours. The city and the port of Antwerp will pay for the extra cost of a tunnel. Mr Janssens travelled to and from Antwerp during yesterday's meeting to receive the green light of the Antwerp city council.

Although a deal was accepted, the Flemish liberals of Open VLD, who are part of the Antwerp coalition, were not all happy with the idea that Antwerp and the port have to come up with extra cash. This caused a lot of irritation and the Open VLD decided to leave the Antwerp coalition. This leaves Mr Janssens with a very narrow majority in the city council.

The completion of the Antwerp orbital road should reduce the unavoidable traffic jams. The whole budget has been set at 3.2 billion euros. The project should be completed by 2021.

"It was a false choice"

Pressure groups opposing the project say that the choice between a tunnel or a bridge was actually a false one. They favour a third option, which would be a lot cheaper.

The option is called the "meccano link" and the basic idea is to divert traffic that is not Antwerp-bound and has a further destination before it reaches the orbital road, using other options which are a bit more distant from the city centre, like the Liefkenshoek tunnel. This would severely reduce traffic on the present orbital road, and solve the present traffic jams.

This option was partly followed in the new decision, with the construction of a tunnel south-east of the city connecting the E19 motorway between Brussels and Antwerp to the E313 motorway between Antwerp and Hasselt.

"We are surprised that our plans have been followed partly. Why not accept our plan as a whole? It would also be over a billion euros cheaper. We are not giving up the fight", pressure groups say.