Hopes for tunnel linking Russia, Alaska revived

$65 billion project includes rail and road link, oil and gas lines

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2007

MOSCOW - An idea first mulled in the czarist era - a tunnel under the Bering Strait - is being revived as part of an ambitious project to build a 3,700-mile transport corridor linking Russia with Alaska.

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Billed by backers as the key to developing Russia's Far East, remote and sparsely populated but rich in energy and minerals, the $65 billion project will be the focus of a conference in Moscow on Tuesday, organizers said in a statement this week.

"The project would give Russia's East the chance to become a leading industrial region of the country and one of the most important transit hubs of the world economy," said the statement, which bore the logos of Russia's pipeline monopoly Transneft, electricity utility RAO United Energy Systems and the Trade Ministry, among others.

In addition to a rail and road link from Yakutsk in Siberia through Anadyr in extreme northeastern Russia and across the strait to Alaska, the transport corridor would include oil and gas pipelines, power lines and fiberoptic cables. The tunnel, which would take 15-20 years to build, would be the longest in the world, it said.

The Bering Strait is about 50 miles wide at its narrowest; it was unclear where the tunnel might be located.

Awash with cash from its oil and gas exports, the Russian government is starting to pump money into projects aimed at overhauling the country's rusting and underdeveloped infrastructure, which is holding back further economic growth.

There is some sign that the link has a degree of traction with Russia's government. Due to speak at Tuesday's conference, titled "Megaprojects of Russia's East," are presidential economic adviser Arkady Dvorkovich and the head of Russia's rail monopoly, Vladimir Yakunin, considered to be close to President Vladimir Putin. Former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel will also be participating.

The organizers plan to sign a letter to the heads of government in Russia, the U.S. and Canada calling for an intergovernmental agreement to implement the project.

"Russia needs a breakthrough national project capable of taking the country to the same level of geopolitical influence and might as the world leaders," the statement said.

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