Avrasya Tunnel Project might trigger problems in İstanbul

October 02, 2011, Sunday/ 14:21:00

İstanbul’s Avrasya Tunnel Project, a highway beneath the İstanbul Strait for light vehicles, planned to be finished in three-and-a-half years’ time, will relieve traffic congestion but might have a negative impact on the city’s historical peninsula, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and trigger disorderly construction in the peninsula’s neighborhoods.

İstanbul’s first tunnel project under the Bosporus, better known as the Marmaray railway tunnel project, was launched in 2004 and is scheduled to open on Oct. 29, 2013. The tunnel will link the city’s Asian and European sides via an undersea commuter railway line. The project also includes the modernization of suburban rail lines along the Sea of Marmara from Halkalı on the European side to Gebze on the Asian side.

Being the second tube tunnel project under the Bosporus Strait following the Marmaray tunnel, the Avrasya Tunnel Project was launched on Feb. 26, 2011 by Avrasya Tüneli İşletme İnşaat ve Yatırım A.Ş. (ATAŞ) and the project is expected to be completed by 2015.

The project will allow 47.5 million automobiles to pass from the historical peninsula on the European side of İstanbul, where landmark buildings such as the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya Museum, the Basilica Cistern and Topkapı Palace are located, to the Anatolian side of İstanbul under the Sea of Marmara via a tunnel.

The Avrasya tunnel will be located 1.8 kilometers south of Marmaray and will cost about $1.1 billion. Experts say covering the distance between Kazlıçeşme and Göztepe would take 100 minutes using highways and the bridges, but with the Avrasya tunnel, the traveling time would be reduced to 15 minutes.

However, some environmentalist experts and organizations established to preserve the city environment oppose the construction of this project because they worry about the negative effects of the project on the silhouette of the historical peninsula, which is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They reject this project by stressing that this new highway beneath the Bosporus Strait might encourage disorderly construction along the route of the highway due to increased accessibility to the rest of the city once this project is completed.

One such example, opponents of the project say, are the skyscrapers currently under construction in the district of Zeytinburnu, which have recently been in the news for ruining the silhouette of the historical peninsula. Upon noticing this, environmentalists began to worry about more of the historical fabric of the peninsula being damaged by the construction of skyscrapers similar to those in Zeytinburnu. They think such construction projects will become more common over time. They even noted that many residential towers and other skyscraper projects are waiting to be launched in the vicinity of the peninsula.

Furthermore, two air ventilation shafts will be constructed as part of the project which experts think will lead to air pollution in neighborhoods close to them. In other countries where similar projects have been undertaken, people have complained about pollution caused by such air ventilation shafts. The ventilation shafts will be 30 meters high in all: 25 meters under the sea and five meters above sea level. Experts point out that this height is not sufficient as these ventilation shafts cannot propel exhaust gases from cars in the tunnel below high enough to drift far away from residents of nearby neighborhoods.

Project has long history

The idea of crossing the Bosporus Strait, from the European side of İstanbul to the Anatolian side, beneath the Bosporus Strait was known as “Tünel-i Bahriye” (Sea Tunnel) in 1860 during the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid I, although this idea was not as technologically advanced or of the same scale as the Avrasya tunnel. It remained a dream until the Marmaray Project and now the Avrasya Project came about.

The Ministry of Transportation and Communication’s Railroad, Port and Airport Construction General Directorate (DLH) tendered the Avrasya project according to the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model. A Turkish-Korean partnership -- Yapı Merkezi from Turkey and SK E&C, Kukdong, Samwhan Corp. and Hanshin from South Korea -- was the winner of the tender and named their joint company ATAŞ-Avraysa Tunnel Construction. ATAŞ will oversee the project and manage the tunnel for the next 26 years, before handing it over to the ministry. Each car will pay about TL 8 while heavier vehicles such as minibuses will pay around TL 11 for each entrance into the tunnel. Heavy vehicles, such as buses and trucks, will not be allowed to pass through the tunnel.

After the process of getting the necessary permission from related authorities to launch the project, ATAŞ prepared an Environmental and Social Effect Evaluation (ÇSED) report for the Avrasya Tunnel Project in order to obtain a loan from international financial institutions because these institutions require such an evaluation. ATAŞ, in their report, elaborated on its advantages of the project, but also listed the possible negative effects, and the proposed solutions to those effects.

However, the Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry did not want this report, saying there was no need to examine the environmental effects of the project in 2007.

The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s City Planning Directorate has also prepared a report, titled “Avrasya Project Evaluation Report,” which stressed that this project might encourage people to make more use of their cars in İstanbul, where traffic is already very congested. It pointed out that public transportation should be encouraged.

The report added that 53 percent of all traffic in the city was vehicle traffic. Ninety percent of all road surfaces in İstanbul are covered by vehicles. While the basic cause of traffic density was automobiles, the tunnel constitutes an investment that might increase the numbers of cars on İstanbul’s streets.

The Cultural and Natural Assets Conservation Board also examined the construction of skyscrapers currently under way in Zeytinburnu which are negatively affecting the silhouette of the historical peninsula, and decided that the construction site was in fact outside the city’s designated protected area. However, directorate officials in Ankara say the site fell inside the historic area that is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. An investigation by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism into the construction area revealed that the site would have a negative impact on the silhouette of the historical peninsula. The ministry was quick to inform local municipalities of the situation, calling on the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality along with the local Zeytinburnu Municipality to immediately conduct their own investigations and to call for an urgent halt to all construction at the site in question. One month has passed since this warning, but the construction still continues.

Avrasya project not to affect historical peninsula

Responding to questions from the Aksiyon newsweekly, ATAŞ Assistant General Manager Levent Çekirge said, “The tunnel will decrease the traffic on the historical peninsula without affecting the world heritage site directly.”

Çekirge responded to questions about air pollution, saying pollution will occur within a 25-meter radius a ventilation shaft located on the European side, but that the wind direction is from north to south, meaning the polluted air will not reach the peninsula.

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