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Trans-Eurasian Belt Development superhighway would connect Russia and U.S.

03/25/2015 06:52 EDT | Updated 05/25/2015 05:59 EDT
It could be the ultimate road trip — on a proposed superhighway that would wind halfway round the world connecting Russia and the U.S., and travelling through major European cities like London, Paris and Berlin.

The head of government-owned Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin envisions the superhighway linking approximately 20,000 kilometres of roadways in Asia, Europe and North America, and providing a crossing over or under the Bering Strait.

The proposal, although short on specifics, was presented recently at a Russian Academy of Sciences meeting, the Siberian Times reported.

The project fits Russia's imperialist ambitions, but a few glaring holes in the proposal have left some wondering if it's even possible. 

"It is certainly in the grand tradition of Soviet public projects and Russian imperial public projects," says Seva Gunitsky, a University of Toronto assistant professor of political science. "These are generally large-scale public projects that the government can take pride in and show something concretely as a major accomplishment."

Joseph Stalin built the Belomar canal as part of Russia's five-year plan to tout Soviet power. Prisoners constructed the more than 200-kilometre long canal, which is also known as the White Sea-Baltic canal, in the early 1930s. It stretches from the White Sea to the Baltic Sea.

The more than 9,000-kilometre long Trans-Siberian railway is another example of this "grand tradition," says Gunitsky. It connects Moscow to Vladistock, at eastern Russia's southern tip.

Russians aren't alone in undertaking major public infrastructure projects to combat unemployment and stimulate the economy, he says. Americans built the Hoover Dam, near Las Vegas, in the 1930s.

Major obstacles

Despite the road project aligning with past Russian intentions, Gunitsky says it seems unlikely the ambitious proposal will materialize past initial discussions.

​He says Yakunin's proposal lacks depth.

Construction wouldn't be cheap, and Yakunin neglects to specify where the "huge funds" needed for the project would come from, he says.

The proposal also doesn't specify how a road would be created over the Bering Strait, which at its narrowest point separates America and Russia by about 85 kilometres. That's a "pretty major obstacle" that would have to be addressed, Gunitsky says.

The plan also relies on Russian-American co-operation at a time when tensions between the two countries remain high. U.S. President Barack Obama has placed sanctions on Russian companies and individuals over Russian President Vladmir Putin's actions in eastern Ukraine.

Lacklustre economic benefits

Even if Russia overcomes all the obstacles, Gunitsky doesn't see much benefit from building such a passage.

It would bolster local development of infrastructure, he says, but is unlikely to improve shipping costs over long distances. Sea shipments are much cheaper than ground shipments at that scale, he says.

"There is no such demand for this kind of road connection," says Jan Nederveen Pieterse, a global studies professor at the University of California and author of Globalization and Culture: Global Mélange, which examines rail networks and globalization.

Some countries have seen success with major connective transit projects, Nederveen Pieterse says. China's New Silk Road plans have been progressing despite a high cost. But those are high-speed rail trains connecting areas that provide great economic benefit, he says.

Russia's plan swaps rails for roads, he says, and wants to link areas that don't provide enough economic benefit to offset the trillions of dollars construction would cost.

Trans-Siberian once doubted too

But this is not the first time someone's floated the idea of an Alaska-Russia connection via the Bering Strait.

InterBering, a company studying how to join the two continents, wants two 103-kilometre-long tunnels to provide a passage. Russia has previously expressed interested in having a rail connection between Russia and Alaska. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin sought to build a stronger road network to western Alaska, with her Road to Nome project.

"I think it's a great idea, and it's definitely going to happen in one form or another in the coming years," says Sergei Plekhanov, an associate professor of political science at Toronto's York University.

He points the naysayers back in time to the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway.

"[The] overwhelming attitude was, 'Oh ... it's not going to happen, and if it does happen, it's not going to pay for itself,'" he says.

But the idea of a Russia-U.S. physical link keeps resurfacing because of the "tremendous boost" it would provide to Russia, Alaska and even northern Canada, he says.

Yakunin will eventually have answers to the questions about cost and funding, he says. The American and Russian governments could join forces on the project because of their "very, very important common interests" to develop their northern regions.

While the proposal may seem flippant, nothing is impossible, says Gunitsky.

"It's always possible that somebody in the Kremlin will latch onto this as a great way to stimulate the local economy and to show the world that Russia can undertake these grand projects," he says.

If the project was to go ahead, the roadway is still years away. Lots of time to plan that perfect road trip.

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