At 64 miles (103 km), it would not only be the longest tunnel in the world, it would more than double the currently longest British Channel Tunnel. It would span the Bering Straight and connect Russia to Alaska. Details are sketchy, but consensus indicates the tunnel would have a highway, high-speed rail tracks, a fiber optic network and pipelines for gas and oil. The total cost for the tunnel is projected at $65 billion USD.
Sounds like a big deal. One would think that such a major undertaking would be big news, announced with all the appropriate press releases and fanfare. Instead, over the past few weeks it’s been a kind of bubbling up through the rumor mill.
“The rumors about a Russian effort to construct what would be the world’s longest tunnel connecting Alaska and Siberia escalated to a fever pitch...” begins an article in Forbes. An uncertain headline read: “Bering Strait Tunnel to Connect U.S. and Russia?” Even expectant Alaskans have been kept in the dark. “More Rumors About Elusive Bering Strait Tunnel: Will It Ever Happen?” read the Alaska Dispatch. Disconcerting for a community so close to Russia that one resident claims she can see the country from her backyard.
If we want to set the record straight, who better to ask than the US government? Certainly they would be in on another country’s plan to tunnel up to their shore.
It just so happens this question was put to the US State Department’s spokesperson September 7 at a Foggy Bottom press briefing.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I have not been able to detect anything from the US side in terms of ongoing discussions with the Russians on a Bering Strait tunnel project. But obviously, they are very intent on moving ahead, although no government decision has been made. Do you know of anything or, if not, could you find out if they’re in interfaces on this issue with the State Department?
MS. NULAND: This is, as you understand it, a tunnel that would link Russia and the US –
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes.
MS. NULAND: – all the way across Bering?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes. Yes.
MS. NULAND: Let me take it. I don’t know where we are on that.
That evening the State Department issued a statement: “While we are not aware of any plans to construct a tunnel under the Bering Strait, the United States and Russia enjoy close cooperation across the Strait in areas such as environmental protection, historical preservation, and recognition of the unique heritage of indigenous peoples in the region.”
Ms. Nuland and State Department officials might want to pick up the August 19th copy of The Times out of London. Times’ reporter Nick Holdsworth was in Yakutsk covering a three-day conference that addressed the expansion of Russia’s infrastructure in the country’s northeastern Siberia. Hundreds of Russian, Chinese, British and US delegates were in attendance. Also in attendance were members of the Kremlin who, it turns out, was giving the go ahead on a Bering Straight tunnel they’d first proposed in 2007.
So why was the State Department kept out of the loop of the Kremlin’s decision-making process? A comment made by Maxim Bystov, deputy head of Russia’s agency for special economic zones, in 2007 may shed a little light: “This will be a business project, not a political one.”
I’m not a politician, but seems to me if your “business project” involves tunneling to another country you might want to check with them first. Regardless, Russian Ministry of Economic Development official Viktor Razbegin told RT that the project is already moving forward. For the past 15 years track and road have been laid down that will eventually connect the Trans-Siberian railroad to Yakutsk. Yakutsk, the “coldest city in the world,” would be the last major stop in Russia. The spur is expected to be completed in 2013.
And then there’s the new rail that will have to be built in the US and Canada. Despite the State Department’s seeming cluelessness, reports claim that each country will be responsible for building the track within their borders. One “minor” detail that has yet to be fully worked out is how to pay for the ‘round-the-world train. The countries are still negotiating the final details of cost estimated to be between $30 billion and $65 billion.
If it’s built, when it’s built, passengers will for the first time be able to board a train in London bound for New York. That’s pretty incredible. Who wouldn’t want to lose themselves for a couple months, taking in an unprecedented range of scenery and climates in a single trip? We have to wait a few for it though. The colossal project won’t be completed until 2045.
Of course, no one’s going to make a train for tourists at $65 billion. Proponents of the tunnel argue that it would enable ‘round-the-world shipping that’s faster, cheaper, and safer than shipping across water. They estimate the network would carry about 3 percent of the world’s cargo and eventually turn a profit after about 15 years of operation.
We’ll have to see in the coming days what exactly is confirmed by Russia, by the US. One thing is for certain, those Russians sure aren’t afraid to think big.