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One Tunnel Between Helsinki and Tallinn – A Lifetime of Prosperity

One Tunnel Between Helsinki and Tallinn – A Lifetime of Prosperity
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Jussi Pajunen, the mayor of Helsinki, and Taavi Aas, the deputy mayor of Tallinn, discussing building a fixed link, a rail tunnel, between Helsinki and Tallinn on Wednesday February 11 2015. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

On Wednesday, the City of Helsinki released information to the public summarising a pre-feasibility study of building a rail tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn.

The city leaders believe this to be the future for travel between the neighboring capitals.

With about 7.5 million trips documented annually, mostly via the ferry system, these two communities are perfect candidates to invest into some type of cooperation that would ensure growth, stability and access for years to come.

A year in the making, this pre-feasibility study gives both residents and potential investors a good idea of what a project like the Helsinki-Tallinn fixed link might entail.

The fixed link follows a trend of cross-border cooperation, which is most likely a phrase you’ll hear being tossed around in urban design circles that refer to joint sustainable planning between two or more municipalities.

The phrase also suggests international union, between countries, looking to foster economic expansion while improving the quality of life for its residents.

A great example would be the cities of Malmö and Copenhagen, which are linked by the Øresund, a bridge that runs nearly eight kilometers and connects Denmark and Sweden making working and living abroad a fairly normal experience for residents of both countries.

The pre-feasibility study itself was put in place to address very specific things and the results seem positive.

With Juho Siippo, the managing director of Sweco Finland, a consulting company in the field of construction, at the helm of today’s press conference at the Finnish Transport Agency, the objectives were laid out along with ample research to address the following issues.

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How will the fixed link be integrated on both sides of the Baltic Sea?

In order for the project to be successful, there needs to be a functioning railway from the Estonian side connecting with the busier airport on the Finnish side. This would provide recreational visitors with a strong connection between northern and central Europe without necessarily having to rely on air transportation.

It would also increase commercial traffic across the Baltic Sea, creating a true twin city ecosystem that could potentially attract foreign investors, medium to large firms and possibly young entrepreneurs who could take advantage of the new accessibility as well as existing strengths in the region, like technology for example.

With a successful integration, what can both countries expect in terms of expansion?

Increased travel is almost certain, and serious planning will become necessary to accommodate this, however, if successful, the link will bring an entirely new dimensional for both consumer goods and passengers in terms of transport possibilities. This would also speed up existing transport relationships between northern Europe and Mediterranean regions. The fixed link would also provide an environmental benefit as the increase in traffic wouldn’t necessitate an increase in emissions from the current system which relies on ferries.

The speed at which passengers could travel between the two cities would be greatly reduced, making a daily commute a real possibility. This would allow regional labor markets to really stretch their wings by offering opportunities to an estimated combined population of just below 2.5 million people in the region giving both Helsinki and Tallinn a chance to compete with some of the larger international hubs throughout Europe.

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What will the project cost? Where does the money come from? And how soon will that debt be repaid?

Today’s number felt a little bit fuzzy. Maybe a margin of 4 billion euros is a little conservative but if the next two years can be spent conducting a full feasibility study you can expect much more accurate figures. The estimated cost for the entire project is currently somewhere between 9-13 billion euros. This would cover integration on both sides, excavation and the construction of the tunnel itself which will run about 4 billion euros.

It’s estimated that the debt would take approximately 35-40 years to pay off and in the meantime would require approximately 40-50 percent of the project to be paid for through public funding.

Actual construction would take between 8-10 years to create an 85 kilometers long tunnel and rail system from Helsinki to Tallinn.

Beyond that, operating costs, as well as service and maintenance, can be covered by the revenue generated from the tunnel. It seems like a huge step moving forward but could provide huge benefits as well.

Is it worth it? 

Just for fun, let’s say the life expectancy of those tunnel parts, is around 200 years which is possible. If the debt can be paid back in 40 years, the tunnel could potentially create jobs, access, and revenue for 75 percent of its life expectancy, which would be a significant return on the initial investment.

The project is modeled after the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link, which will be under construction this fall in Denmark and Germany.

For this project, the EU is covering around 40 percent of the implementation costs, so securing the funding is possible.

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Taavi Aas, the deputy mayor of Tallinn, visiting Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

But what other advantages might a project like this offer to the region?

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It was suggested in today’s press conference that Finland is at risk of becoming a far-away island to the rest of the world. Couple that with the impending labor shortage, slated to make its appearance around 2030, and you have a real need for connectivity.

The fixed link would not only provide physical access but would lay the foundation for cultural connectivity as well.

Partnerships between northern, eastern, and central European countries could contribute to the new face of the Baltic region.

Hotels and restaurants would almost certainly see an increase in the number of visitors.

Universities would have a competitive advantage in terms of recruitment.

Economically it already makes sense. Finns alone are spending almost 300 million euros a year in the slightly more favorable (commercially) Estonia, while it’s estimated that Estonians are already earning above 500 million euros a year working in Finland, commonly in industries such as construction.

So take the existing commerce, and the expansion plan, and build a community that’s collectively marketing itself on both sides of the Baltic Sea and you have a recipe for exponential growth.

To be fair, investing in transportation does not automatically lead to change.

It does, however, present the opportunity for regional economic development and land use improvements.

Jussi Pajunen, the mayor of Helsinki, spoke in the closing minutes about the importance of political leaders to enhance, rather than stall, projects like this.

“Helsinki is ready to start a project that would create a significant positive impact for not only both nations but the whole of Europe.”

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