Bering Tunnel Project Begins to Take Shape

APA dog team being driven over the frozen Bering Sea in March last year.
For more than a century, entrepreneurs and engineers have dreamed of building a tunnel connecting the Eastern and Western hemispheres under the Bering Strait -- only to be brought up short by war, revolution and politics.

Now die-hard supporters are renewing their push for the audacious plan -- a $65 billion highway project that would link two of the world's most inhospitable regions by burrowing under a stretch of water connecting the Pacific with the Arctic Ocean.

Russians and Americans alike made their pitch for the project in Moscow on Tuesday, at a conference titled "Megaprojects of Russia's East."

"It's time to the rewrite the old slogan 'Workers of the world unite!'" said Walter Hickel, a former governor of Alaska and interior secretary under U.S. President Richard Nixon. "It's time to proclaim, 'Workers -- Unite the world!'"

An Economic Development and Trade Ministry official tossed cold water on the idea, saying he wanted to know who planned to pay the mammoth bill for the project before seriously discussing it. But Hickel was unfazed in his speech, saying the route would unlock hitherto untapped natural resources -- and bolster the economies of both Alaska and the Far East.

The proposed 110-kilometer tunnel would be the longest in the world. It would also be the linchpin for a 6,000-kilometer railroad line stretching from Yakutsk -- capital of the gold- and mineral-rich republic of Sakha, which is roughly the size of India -- through extreme northeastern Russia, in waters up to 54-meters deep and into the western coast of Alaska. Winter temperatures there routinely hit minus 70 degrees Celsius.

By comparison, the undersea tunnel that is currently the world's longest -- the Chunnel, linking Britain and France -- is only 50-kilometers long. That raises the prospect of some tantalizingly exotic routes -- train riders could catch the London-Moscow-Washington express, conference organizers suggested.

Lobbyists claimed the project is guaranteed to turn a profit after 30 years. As crews constructed the road and rail link, they said, the workers would also build oil and gas pipelines and lay electricity and fiber optic cables.

Trains would whisk cargos at up to 100 kilometers per hour, 80 meters beneath the seabed.

Eventually, 3 percent of the world's cargo could move along the route, organizers hope.

Maxim Bystrov, deputy head of the Federal Agency for the Management of Special Economic Zones, injected a note of sobriety to the heady talk of linking East and West by road and rail. He said his agency would invest in the project only when private investors said they were committed to building it.

"As a ministry employee, I am used to working with figures and used to working with projects that have an economic and financial base," Bystrov said. "The word prozhekt has a negative meaning in Russian. I want this prozhekt to turn into a 'project.'"