Kerch Bridge: Utopian project by governmental officials
Stroygazmontazh company, the general contractor for the Kerch Strait Bridge construction, received the first installment for the year of 2016 from the state budget. However, the Kerch Strait Bridge project raises concerns of conservation experts due to risks for local flora and fauna, while technical experts believe that a high-speed bridge constructed on the unstable Tuzla Spit might be unsafe for passengers.
Was there an alternative?
The selection of the Kerch Strait Bridge project has left many experts with raised eyebrows due to its high cost and complexity. It was announced that the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation (Mintrans) has evaluated over 70 projects of a bridge to connect the Crimean Peninsula with continental Russia. In April 2014 the Federal Road Agency (Rosavtodor) established an expert board to assess the survey data. Three main options have been examined: a combination bridge, a tunnel, and a pontoon-abutment bridge project by a French Freyssinet company. The tunnel option, less expensive than a bridge, was rejected from the very beginning because it would allow to save funds only on one traffic line construction, which was insufficient for the required transportation capacity. According to the terms of reference, the bridge must be able to transport 100 million tons per year and 40 thousand tons daily. An alternative solution was the French project: bridge on floating abutments. Its cost was estimated at 80 billion rubles, and the construction time was minimal. The project was supported by Crimean officials, but the Kremlin has declined this idea due to its insufficient exploration degree.
As a result, a traditional for Russia beam pile trestle bridge project has been chosen. There were alternative layout options that seemed more feasible. Experts suggested to construct a pile trestle bridge starting from the Chushka Spit – as it was planned back in 1949. This construction would be much cheaper because the Chushka Spit is already linked with a motorway and railroad. The length of the passage would be only 5 km. However, the Tuzla Spit has been chosen. The bridge length will be 19 km, plus a railroad, high-voltage power line, and other communications have to be constructed. Additional costs are related to severe geological conditions on the strait bottom: piles for the Kerch Strait must be four times longer – up to 70 m – and the pile toe diameter must be 2 m to ensure stability in the difficult bottom soil.
Photo: Kerch Bridge construction options
So the question is: why the most expensive and complicated project was chosen from all other possible Kerch Bridge construction options?
Perhaps, this could be explained by interests of Mintrans, which is currently lobbying development of the Taman Port as a transshipment coal and oil terminal.
During the crisis, the port development project was put on hold. According to the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, after the reunification with Crimea, the Taman Port has lost its top-priority significance. However, Russian Railways Open Joint Stock Company also used to be a co-tender for the governmental contract to build the Kerch Bridge. Some media suggested that Vladimir Yakunin, then-Head of Russian Railways (resigned in August 2015), and his close circle had already gained support of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia. The President, via his council Andrey Belousov, allegedly suggested his ministers to think twice before putting the port development project on hold. The Ministry of Transport understood the advice to think twice very straightforwardly and decided to combine the railroad construction in Taman (which was not needed so much anymore) with the Kerch Bridge construction by all means.
The cost to erect a bridge
The initial cost of the bridge construction project was 50 billion rubles. Maksim Sokolov, the Minister of Transport of the Russian Federation, announced this figure in winter 2014. However, according to the Presidential instruction, the structure had to combine a motorway and railway – which increased the preliminary project cost to 100 billion rubles. According to the new project design, the Kerch Bridge will consist of two paths: one for railway, and another one for a four-lane road.
Mintrans is the main budget holder for this construction of the century, while Rosavtodor is the main client. The tender was announced in 2014. According to Forbes, it was expected that Stroygazmontazh company led by Gennady Timchenko becomes the general contractor, while the main subcontractors would be SK MOST (Bridge) Group of companies and Mostotrest company, the largest transport infrastructure builder in Russia (Arkady and Viktor Rotenberg are its shareholders).
However, later TASS reported that Stroygasinvest declined to participate in the project due to potential reputational risks. Gennady Timchenko explained that the cost of the bridge is unknown as well as the geological conditions; therefore the company decided that participation in the project would be too risky.
In the beginning of May, the Federal Dedicated Program of Socio-Economic Development of the Crimean Federal District until 2020 was approved. In the framework of this program, up to 200 billion rubles have been allocated from the federal budget for a 5-year period to construct a motorway and railway passage across the Kerch Strait.
In 2015 the Vice Premier Dmitry Korovyak announced that 228.3 billion rubles will be allocated for the bridge construction.
Finally, Stroygazmontazh Limited Liability Company belonging to Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg became the sole general contractor for the Kerch Strait Bridge construction.
Photo: Arkady Rotenberg
The contract between the Taman Administration of Federal Motorways Federal Budgetary Institution of the Federal Road Agency (subordinate to Rosavtodor) and Stroygazmontazh Limited Liability Company was signed in February 2015. It was reported that the general contractor has been chosen from 74 candidates, while the main selection criteria included not only the bank guarantee (30% of the construction cost) but also a firm requirement not to exceed the budget of 228 billion rubles. According to the schedule, the project had to be completed by 2019.
Construction of the marine part of the bridge has started only in May, although Roman Starovoit, the Head of Rosavtodor, had earlier stated that access routes will be constructed simultaneously with the bridge. According to Forbes, in May 2016 Andrey Kirilenko, the Principal General of Stroygazmontazh, sent a letter to Evgeny Ditrikh, the Deputy Minister of Transport, and Roman Starovoit, the head of Rosavtodor, stating that the company is unable to follow the construction schedule due to lack of financing.
Forbs reported that the general contractor received the last installment on December 1, 2015. In total, 48.9 billion rubles have been transferred to the company in 2015. 65.4 billion rubles should be transferred in 2016.
According to Forbes, the letter stated that the company is unable to continue the construction in accordance with the schedule and not ready to spend money on expensive construction equipment due to funding delays. Kirilenko noted that Mintrans and Rosavtodor do not pay outstanding amounts to the general contractor since February 2016. On May 17, 2016 Vice Premier Dmitry Kozak accused construction intermediaries of overpricing construction materials threefold.
In July 2016, the amount owed by the government to the general contractor was 8 billion rubles. Students of Russian construction engineering universities have been sent to the Kerch Bridge construction as cheap (starting from 150 rubles per hour) workforce.
Later Rosavtodor announced that there are no issues with financing, and the payment was delayed due to bureaucratic runaround: since this year, the provision of financial services for large governmental construction projects is being transferred from the banks to the state treasury. The governmental contract must be fully transferred to the treasury service to be able to issue payments.
It also became known in July 2016 that the final cost of the bridge construction – 227.92 billion rubles – is almost 380 million rubles less than the total project cost approved by the Instruction of the Russian Government №118-r of January 30, 2015. The total expenses of the general contractor – Stroygazmontazh Limited Liability Company – related to the bridge design and construction will be 223.14 billion rubles.
Photo: Bridge construction
Some experts think that the total cost of 228 billion rubles is suspiciously low. According to Mikhail Blinkin, Tenured Professor of the Institute for Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, one kilometer of the Kerch Bridge should cost some 173 million dollars. The expert notes that the cost was calculated before the December crash, and it will be realized during the construction that the assigned amount is not sufficient to ensure the bridge safety, especially taking into account geological and seismic features of the Kerch Strait.
On the bottom of the Kerch Strait
According to ancient Greek myths, Hades – the transition between the land of the living and the world of the dead – is located right under the construction site. This legend is, in fact, very actual today. There is a fracture between 2 tectonic plates under the Kerch Strait, which results in unstable sea bottom, variable depth of the strait, water turbidity, and frequent storms near the Tuzla Spit. The complicated sea bottom soil consists of sand (10–50 m), silt (30–80 m), and methane and oil deposits. Overall, these are very adverse conditions for any capital infrastructure construction there.
The Tuzla Island was formed in 1925 by a severe storm that transformed the Kerch Canal into a strait several kilometers long, while the Tuzla Spit became an island. All attempts to restore the spit failed. Both the Tuzla Spit and Tuzla Island have no permanent location. They continuously migrate and change shape depending on many factors, including underground mud volcanoes. Tuzla island formations are a sand-slit terrace with shell gravel aggradations. This natural barrier creates a unique shallow basin in the Sea of Azov used by waterfowl as a winter sanctuary.
Interestingly, there was an attempt to construct a dam near the Tuzla Spit in 2003. Not only did this construction cause a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, but also affected the Sea of Azov environmental conditions: the intensity of storms and water turbidity have increased. The natural sand bank serves as a permeable barrier and creates unique natural environments, while artificial dams destroy the environmental balance. According to the Kerch Bridge project, the first section of 1.5 km should connect the dam constructed in 2003 with Tuzla, while the second section should connect Tuzla with Crimea.
Ecologists believe that the bridge would affect the environment adversely. The island and spit have their own unique ecosystems that include some 500 rare animal species and 800 plant species. The spit became a favorite location for birds that use it for nesting and seasonal migration. The bird population of the island and spit includes 10 Red Data Book species.
The urgency of the bridge construction has raised concerns of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage for the Southern Federal District. Administrative proceedings have been initiated against the Taman Administration of Federal Motorways Federal Budgetary Institution of the Federal Road Agency.
On May 25, 2015 hearings dedicated to the assessment of environmental impact from the construction have been conducted. On the same day the terms of reference for environmental impact assessment were approved – even though this was contrary to the Statement on environmental impact assessment of the Russian Federation.
Then the State Duma started approving special acts. Similar things already happened during preparations for the Sochi Olympics, when certain lands were, in fact, excluded from the federal legislation.
A special Bill № 812639-6 “Specific features of the construction of a transportation passage across the Kerch Strait and creation of pipeline transportation, energetics, and communication facilities” was approved by the State Duma in the first reading on July 1, 2015. On July 8, 2015 the Bill was approved by the Federation Council, and on July 13, 2016 – signed by the Russian President. The requirement to incorporate the facility into the Russian transport and energetics territorial planning documentation was excluded from the document. The explanatory note states that the law is essential to reduce the time of legal implementation of construction sites in order to follow construction and installation work cycles.
The same law is setting time limits for environmental assessments which now cannot exceed 45 days. In addition, the law states that absence of a positive environmental conclusion may not prevent the installation of infrastructure facilities, as well as lack of a license to bury the sea bottom soil cannot prevent the issuance of a permit to bury it on the sea bottom.
Photo: Kerch Strait
Another important fact not taken into account by state officials must be noted. A bridge across the Kerch Strait once existed, it was built in 1944. The German army planned to construct a bridge to advance to Iran via the Caucasus. Then the Soviet army used materials prepared by the Germans – a bridge across the Kerch Strait was needed to liberate Crimea. The bridge 4.5 km long has been built in 6.5 months. But in February of the same year it was swept away by ice drifting from the Sea of Azov.
Yesterday the press service of Taman Administration of Federal Motorways Federal Budgetary Institution of the Federal Road Agency announced that the general contractor has received the first installment for the year of 2016. In July 2016 Rosavtodor stated that additional funding – some 228 billion rubles – will be allocated for the construction of the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea with continental Russia. The construction of the century should be completed by 2019. The cost of the bridge has already increased by several times – the initial project budget was 50 billion rubles. No one can say what additional funding would be required in the remaining three years to complete the construction. The spending efficiency of the multi-billion investments is also questionable.