NEWS

Dark side of the Rio-Antirio bridge

The recent, long-awaited opening of the Rio-Antirio bridge across the western end of the Gulf of Corinth, where ferries used to ply the crossing between Rio, on the Peloponnesian side, and Antirio on the northern coast, has made a number of people happy: the construction companies and all those who worked on the bridge, the politicians who want a piece of the glory and television viewers who like a good show. But those who live near or around the bridge are concerned about the future. And drivers found no cause for joy in the traffic jams over the August 15 holiday weekend, especially after they paid 9.70 euros for the toll fee and then took one hour to drive over the 2.5 kilometers of the bridge. The splendid view was hopefully some compensation. The completion and opening of the bridge earlier this month was accompanied by speeches emphasizing the opportunities for development, the increased prospects for both sides and the progress the bridge symbolizes. Behind the scenes, however, are people whose lives are influenced directly by the bridge, the repercussions of which – both positive and negative – are considerable for the local communities, particularly for Antirio. According to some initial estimates, Antirio’s population will triple over the next 15 years. For the moment, however, faces are grim. «In my neighborhood in Antirio, there are seven or eight seamen’s families and most of us no longer know what we are going to do,» said Nikolaos Tzamis, who works on the ferry boats that have been plying the route between the two sides. «I have been living here since 1983. If I want to stay employed, I will have to take my family and move to Salamina, where many of the boats on this line are going,» he said. The truth is that of the 36 ferry boats that served passengers and vehicles, 12 carried out their final schedule last Thursday, and as many again are expected to be moved to other channel crossings by early November. According to Giorgos Asimakopoulos, president of the Rio-Antirio seamen’s union, there are 530 people employed on the ferry boats, many of whom are now facing unemployment. Last Friday, he himself was one person who saw the traffic jam on the bridge as a cause for optimism. «Our boats were working as usual so people came to us as we are up to 60 percent cheaper than the bridge,» he said. The seamen have their own reasons for being against the bridge. According to the Patras Labor Center’s president, Alexandros Barlos, about 300 people will lose their jobs over the next few months as ferry schedules are dropped. «This might seem like a small number, but it is very important for an area that already has a high jobless rate.» Barlos says the extent of the repercussions on the self-employed who earn their living either directly or indirectly from the ferry line, will also be serious but difficult to predict. Panayiotis Mylonas, a father of four, has for years supplied drivers in the port of Rio with sweets and nuts. «If business declines, I won’t have anywhere else to go. If my license as a vendor expires, I won’t be able to feed my family,» he said. Mylonas pays 250 euros a month to rent «port space,» and the same amount for his social security. Generally, there is grave concern among the inhabitants of Antirio, despite predictions that the bridge will raise land values. «What is it to me if 10-20 big landowners get rich?» asked a seaman who did not want to give his name. «Perhaps 90 percent of the people in Antirio earn their living from the ferry line.» These include the gasoline stations – to which there is no access from the new road to the bridge – kiosks, cafes, diners, lottery ticket sellers, and even supermarkets that supplied the ferry boats. «First we will go hungry and then everyone else who earned their living off us,» he said. There is some optimism, however, over prospects being opened up, as well as concern over the best possible way to exploit the new conditions. The prefect of Achaia, Dimitris Katsikopoulos, believes that the bridge «will contribute to a massive increase in tourism, which for both Rio and Antirio will mean a reorganization of zoning and explosive growth.» He says the project is a showpiece for the region and claims that it will be a reference point for the development of well-designed tourism infrastructure and services to create new jobs. As for the risks, he says his greatest fear are the effects of such development on the environment and the coastal zone. Other officials see tourism as an antidote to unemployment. The bridge itself is a local sight and could attract visitors other than those that use it to cross from one side to another. Meanwhile, the construction consortium is working on converting the reservoirs in which the bridge’s construction material was manufactured into an aquarium. The bridge can attract two categories of tourists: experts interested in the technical aspects of this unique project and ordinary visitors who want to see the view and enjoy a high quality of service at affordable prices. «In order to achieve all that, an administrative authority has to be set up with the participation of the consortium, both municipalities and both prefectures, aimed at a broad economic and technical plan for the region and its growth. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better the future will be.» Ticket price war The opening of the Harilaos Trikoupis bridge between Rio and Antirio has had a spectacular effect on ferry ticket prices. To keep the ferry service going and in order for it to compete with the far speedier crossing offered by the bridge, at least when there are no traffic jams, the ferry boat consortium has radically reduced prices for all vehicles. A ticket for a private car is down to 4.50 euros from the previous 6.60 euros, and far below the 9.70-euro toll charged for the bridge. Motorcycles can cross on the ferry for 1 euro, compared to 1.50 euros on the bridge. On the bridge, large buses and trucks are charged according to a sliding scale ranging from 15 to 44 euros for trucks and 23.50 to 51 for buses, according to the number of seats. On the ferry boats, a large truck can travel for 22 euros, buses for 18 euros. Beforehand, fares were 27.60 euros for these vehicles.