STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This next story takes us to the west coast of Norway, which is divided by dozens of inlets called fjords. Driving from one end to the other takes 21 hours and requires seven ferry crossings. This scenic drive is in the news because Norway wants to cut the travel time in half. It is supporting a nearly $40 billion project, which would include a floating bridge and maybe even a floating underwater traffic tunnel. NPR's Frank Langfitt took some of the drive as it is now.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is a ferry on a huge fjord on the west coast of Norway. We're surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It's really windy. I'm getting hit by bow spray. And you can see small - it's a rural area. You can see a lot of small, wooden Norwegian houses here. And we're just about to come into dock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEA GULLS CRYING)
LANGFITT: Kare Martin Kleppe greets me at the water's edge. He's the mayor of Tysnes, a collection of islands, and he can't wait for a floating bridge.
KARE MARTIN KLEPPE: The ferry is a beautiful trip, but it's more an obstacle than a good connection.
LANGFITT: A floating bridge would replace the ferry, cutting travel time across the fjord from 40 minutes to five, making it easier to attract investment here, where the population has fallen by about half over the past century to 2,800, and making it easier for the region's fishing industry to get its salmon to market.
KLEPPE: It's a saying that there's nothing in the world that is in a bigger rush than a dead fish. We need to keep it fresh.
ARIANNA MINORETTI: My name is Arianna Minoretti, and I worked for the Norwegian Public Road Administration.
LANGFITT: Minoretti's an Italian engineer. She came from Milan just to work on this project because it was so challenging. Minoretti says in parts of Norway's west coast, conventional cable-stayed bridges and tunnels won't work.
MINORETTI: Because some of these fjords are really, really deep. We have some fjords that drive 1 kilometer deep. That is too much.
LANGFITT: One potential solution, build something no one ever has, a submerged, floating traffic tunnel. Minoretti says it could be made of concrete to provide ballast and float a hundred feet or so below the surface. It could be fastened to floating pontoons or tethered to the sea bed.
MINORETTI: When I started working with this type of structure, I felt really excited, like, wow, this is something that you can be an engineer and live your life without having this chance. So it's really unique.
LANGFITT: Of course, there are dangers. Norwegian submarines train in the fjord so there's the risk of collision. A terrorist bomb could rip open the tunnel, sending water pouring in. Which is why the Norwegian government is working carefully on designs. Today Vegard Aune is simulating the effects of a bomb blast using compressed air inside a steel tube. Aune is an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the city of Trondheim.
VEGARD AUNE: The pressure we generate today is similar to a vehicle-borne improvised device of 800 kilos of improvised explosives at the distance of 30 meters.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIMULATOR HISSING AND POPPING)
LANGFITT: The purpose of this bold transportation project is to replace the ferries and slash travel time...
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)
LANGFITT: ...But many people who ride the ferries love them, like Vanke Setrha, who's enjoying the enforced rest as she watches the mountains pass by.
VANKE SETRHA: If you're driving a long distance, it's good to have the ferry. You need a break to relax, take a cup of coffee and get new energy.
LANGFITT: Another passenger, Kjell Mevic, who works in the Merchant Marine, enjoys the scenic crossings, too, but worries about the potential alternative.
KJELL MEVIC: Keep the ferries. Skip the tunnels.
LANGFITT: Really? Why?
MEVIC: Because an explosion in the tunnel will be like a bottle of champagne. Kaboom. Nothing left.
LANGFITT: So you've heard about the idea of doing the underwater tunnels?
LANGFITT: You don't think they're safe?
MEVIC: Well, they're probably safe, but there's a good target for terrorists.
LANGFITT: Many along Norway's west coast are skeptical of the project because of the huge cost, and they aren't convinced it will ever be completed. But Svein Bgerne Aase, a bus driver, looks forward to it.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).
LANGFITT: I met him one Sunday as he was rushing out of church to catch a ferry.
SVEIN BGERNE AASE: It will be much easier for everybody who's traveling. So I think that is our future, to get a bridge or tunnel under the sea.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE RUNNING)
LANGFITT: And with that, Svein drove off to make an early afternoon ferry, which for now, is the only way he can complete his bus routes. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tysnes, Norway.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOREALISM'S "FORGED BY THE WATER")
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