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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Petersburg's Road to Nowhere

Alarming to environmentalists, shrouded in mystery, and possibly destined never to be built, St. Petersburg's proposed 12-lane highway remains a puzzle to many - and one that city authorities are in no hurry to explain.

The 60-kilometer highway, which would run north to south along the city's western edge, has been sharply criticized by ecological and historic preservation activists, as well as by local and federal lawmakers concerned about the project's secrecy and lack of accountability.

The road, dubbed the Zapadny Skorostny Diametr, or ZSD, would begin at Primorskoye Shosse in the north and run south across Krestovsky Island, Vasilievsky Island and Gutuevsky Island and then through the Kirovsky region.

The cost, according to City Hall documents, is $3.7 billion - a huge amount given Russia's low levels of investment - to be raised through private investors. The ZSD is to be a toll road and investors would in theory get a return on their money once it opens.

Critics, including former members of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's administration, say the project is unrealistic, unaccountable and potentially disastrous. "There is no doubt that St. Petersburg needs to solve its road and traffic problems," State Duma Deputy Yuly Rybakov wrote in a letter to Yakovlev. "But the ZSD project in its current form will not only not solve these problems, but could lead to an ecological and cultural catastrophe for St. Petersburg."

The Fund for the Ecology of Culture, an historic preservation society, has made a list of 16 historical and architectural monuments in the highway's path.

News of the project leaked out in the form of letters to property holders along the planned highway's path. The letters asked them to estimate the worth of their property in case it had to be seized.

One such letter went to the 100-year-old Church of the Epiphany on Dvinskaya Ulitsa. The priest, Father Alexander Zakharov, says city authorities told him the letter only meant the highway might pass that way and destroy the church.

Yakovlev signed a decree in October, 1997, establishing a corporation called OAO Zapadny Skorostny Diametr, or OAO-ZSD, which was charged with completing the highway project. Last November, another gubernatorial decree turned over 142,000 square kilometers of city land to OAO-ZSD for 49 years and gave it the lucrative right to sublease the land while the project was still being planned. Thus, OAO-ZSD can make a lot of money - without building a meter of highway.

The head of OAO-ZSD is Alexei Bolshakov, a former deputy prime minister in the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Bolshakov has close ties to Yakovlev.

Former Deputy Governor Igor Artyemev, who resigned as finance committee chairman in January, has repeatedly slammed the project - comparing it to a similar proposal - also headed by Bolshakov - to use city loan guarantees to build a massive hotel and business center complex on Ligovsky Prospekt adjacent to the Moscow Station .

That project sought $200 million in loans from British banks backed by a guarantee from the St. Petersburg government. Critics argued that if the developers did not pay the loan back, the city's taxpayers would be stuck with the bill. Last year, Yakovlev signed off on the project but the loan guarantee was blocked by the Legislative Assembly.

"Mr. Bolshakov specializes in building Panama Canals - projects of the century that are never completed but that somehow use up massive government funds and resources," said Boris Vishnevsky, who served as an adviser to Artyemev in the finance committee.

"Nobody is going to invest in this project and the road is never going to be built. Nevertheless, from time to time, the governor signs decrees turning over land to this company. This company is going to make a lot of profit from this land and the city will get nothing in return."