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Point of view: He who sows infrastructure, reaps more traffic

Barbara Wülser is Communications Manager at CIPRA International. © Martin Walser

At the end of February 2016 Swiss voters will decide on the building of a second road tunnel at the Gotthard Pass. The CHF 4 billion project will torpedo Switzerland’s modal shift policy, believes Barbara Wülser, CIPRA International’s communications manager.

Traffic will flow where it can most quickly and easily reach its destination. That is the logic of the free-market economy as propounded on all sides, and which also forms part of the overland traffic agreement between the European Union and Switzerland. The agreement forbids any artificial limitation on traffic capacity. We thus see the first and sorest point of the matter on which Swiss voters go to the polls on 28 February 2016: the project undermines the policy aimed at a modal shift.

Switzerland wants to build a second road tunnel on the Gotthard Pass at a cost of four billion francs, but only to permit the single-lane use of both tunnels following refurbishment of the existing one. Following a Swiss ballot, it was enshrined in the constitution that goods traffic over the Alps had to be shifted onto the railways within ten years. That was in 1994. The implementation of the statutory target of an annual maximum of 650,000 trucks crossing the Alps has been repeatedly postponed. Today the number stands at one million trucks. The federal government has in the meantime abandoned the goal.

Without any consistent strategy, such rail projects will remain pipe dreams. At present the rail system in Switzerland is only working at 60% capacity. As of December 2016, goods and passenger trains will start rolling through the newly opened longest tunnel in the world, also on the Gotthard Pass, which cost twelve billion francs. Some 40% of the rail capacity will remain available. How can this long-term project possibly pay off if at the same time it is competing with an expansion of road capacity?

As also demanded by CIPRA’s position paper, traffic has to be avoided and shifted onto rail, but not at the cost of other regions. On the Brenner Pass, by far the most heavily used Alpine transit route, the number of heavy goods vehicles increased by 25% between 1999 and 2013, with the associated hazards of noise and air pollution for local people. Nearly two millions trucks grind over the pass each year. With the building of a second tube, the Gotthard route would become the shortest four-lane road link between northern and southern Europe, drawing traffic streams from elsewhere. The costs of a second road tunnel on the Gotthard are some three billion francs higher than for a modest refurbishment. Annual operating and maintenance costs will add another 25 to 40 million. Yet money is lacking elsewhere, particularly in the big cities.

Those living on the Brenner Pass and at other Alpine transit points may well rejoice at the prospect of the relief provided by a second Gotthard tube. However, even with a “yes” vote, they would still have to wait until at least 2027 (and possibly until 2033) before the new tunnel is completed and the old one refurbished. Who will then remember what was promised back in 2016?

Source and further information:, (de), (fr), (it), (de/fr/it), (de/fr/it)