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Monti Pushes Ahead on High-Speed Rail Project as Protests Mount

Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government is pushing ahead with its share of an 8.2 billion-euro ($10.9 billion) high-speed train line linking Italy and France, defying opponents who have demonstrated across the country.

A government panel in Rome will today decide whether to free up 20 million euros in funds to compensate residents of the Piedmont region and in particular the Val di Susa, an Alpine valley near the Italian-French border that has been at the center of violent protests against the rail project.

“The northern part of Italy is highly developed, but it’s also isolated from the rest of Europe by the Alps,” Gian Maria Gros-Pietro, professor at Luiss University and former chairman of toll-road company Atlantia SpA, said in an interview. “Tunnels under the Alps are crucial for the development not only of Italy, but also for the central part of Europe, which is the richest region for industry.”

The high-speed TAV rail line will link Turin, the capital of Piedmont and home to automaker Fiat SpA, to the French city of Lyon through a 57-kilometer tunnel running under the Alps. The TAV will cut travel time from Paris to Milan from seven hours to about four hours and reduce truck traffic by around 600,000 vehicles a year, Monti said last week.

The project will also employ about 6,000 people at a time when Italy’s jobless rate of 9.2 percent is at the highest in more than a decade and Monti is trying to overhaul its labor laws to encourage hiring and boost growth, according to the government’s website.

‘No-TAV’ Movement

Building a high-speed rail tunnel will “destroy all the ground waters, not only those in the valley but also on the French mountainsides,” Nicoletta Dosio, a retired professor and leader of the “No-TAV” movement, said in an interview March 8. Dosio has been fighting against the project since it was approved at the European Union’s 1990 summit.

Environmentalists who oppose the plan also say the tunnel will create pollution and put valley residents’ health at risk, as asbestos locked inside the mountains could be released by drilling the tunnel.

“We won’t give up,” Dosio said. “The alternative would be the death of this place and of our society.”

High-speed rail opponents have blocked highways and demonstrated throughout the region, as well as in Rome and Milan. Several policemen were injured in recent clashes with protesters and some journalists covering the demonstrations were attacked and robbed. A No-TAV activist was hospitalized last week after being electrocuted and falling off a high-tension wire during a protest.

Monti Committed

Monti said last week his government remains committed to the project and that no form of violence will be tolerated. “Do we want to let our peninsula drift serenely, cut off from Europe?” Monti said at a press conference March 2. Giving up on infrastructure projects like high-speed rail would make it “very difficult for the Italian economy to recover, be competitive and create new jobs,” he said.

The Monti government, in power since November, has pushed through a 20 billion-euro austerity plan and other measures to spur growth and jumpstart an economy that has lagged below the EU average for more than a decade.

The rail line will create a “physical link with Europe,” fundamental for future generations, Monti said last week. Still, environmentalists remain convinced the project will weigh on public finances without bringing economic benefits.

“This will have a huge impact on our public finances, in a period of economic crisis,” Vittorio Cogliati Dezza, chairman of environmental group Legambiente, said in a Bloomberg Television interview March 7. “The project won’t help the country, it won’t help the area.”

Even protesters who back Monti’s economic policies say the prime minister has made a mistake on TAV. “We love him,” No-TAV leader Alberto Perino said in a speech near Turin last week. “But he better avoid a test of strength with us.”

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