Tunnel trouble for transport minister

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A hotly contested and expensive tunnel project in western Norway has dug up trouble for Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa, not least because it would run curiously close to her own home town. While some smelled pork barrel politics, she seemed to be digging in her heels.

Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa seems to have pushed through an expensive tunnel project back home in Rogaland, and withheld a critical evaluation of it. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet

Newspaper VG reported Monday that it was Kleppa herself, who hails from the district-oriented Center Party, who pushed the tunnel project hard enough that it won support from the three-party coalition government in which she sits.

Expected to cost at least NOK 5.5 billion (nearly USD 1 billion), the tunnel would run northeast from Stavanger under the sea to Tau, connecting to the highway (RV13) that runs up to Kleppa’s home town of Hjelmeland in Ryfylke. VG reported that Kleppa’s husband has championed the tunnel for years, and that it would cut travel time from Tau to Stavanger, now served by a ferry, by around 35 minutes.

It’s certainly not the first time a transport minister has promoted expensive transport projects for their home areas (the relatively new highway between Oslo and Bergen has been called “Kjell Opseth’s road” for the Labour Party minister who pushed it through his constituency’s territory) but it’s also the process around this project that’s got fingers wagging. And not everyone in Ryfylke is thanking Kleppa for her efforts either.

“Kleppa has driven some raw politics to get her way on this,” Leif Nieuwejaar, local leader of the Strand Labour Party, told VG. Ole Tome Guse, mayor of Forsand township for the Christian Democrats, claimed the tunnel “would never have become a reality if Kleppa hadn’t come from Hjelmeland.”

Longest, deepest, priciest
The project, called Ryfast, involves two undersea tunnels connecting Stavanger and Ryfylke. The longer of the two would run for 14.3 kilometers and be the world’s longest, deepest and, most likely, most expensive undersea tunnel.

Norway’s left-center government coalition of Kleppa’s party, Labour and the Socialist Left (SV) approved the project last month and it’s expected to be approved by parliament next week since all three parties have a majority.

Now VG has disclosed, however, that both the Transport Ministry and the Finance Ministry had asked for an external quality evaluation of the project. It was completed last December but withheld until the government handled the project three weeks ago. “I understand why,” MP Hallgeir Langeland of SV told VG. “Kleppa therefore avoided debate on the necessity of this expensive project.”

The quality evaluation (called a KS2 report) was conducted by Holte Consulting and Vista Analyse and they were highly critical of the project. They don’t think its financing (based on tolls) will be adequate and that the project should be dumped.

Kleppa’s ministry has chosen to ignore the consultants’ evaluation that the high tolls needed will reduce potential traffic. They’re also ignoring opposition to the project even from within Ryfylke, and the Justice Ministry has declared that Kleppa has no conflict of interest in the case even though it’s in her home area and her husband has been its biggest promoter.

“My involvement is based on following a local project that was approved by all parties in the Rogaland Fylketing (the local county assembly) except SV,” Kleppa told VG.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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