Obsessions Satisfied and Postponed: The Gotthard Tunnel and the Crossing of Lake Geneva
We all have obsessions. We all have dreams we hope to realize. (Mine is winning Wimbledon. Every year I prepare my victory speech and get teary when I listen to the victor. It should be me!) Rarely do we satisfy our obsessions; rarely do we actualize what we hope we will accomplish. That said, the Swiss have satisfied one national obsession with the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel; Genevans still have a long way to go with the crossing of Lake Geneva.
The June 1, 2016, celebration of the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel was a major European event and an impressive milestone for Switzerland. The world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel had a flawless debut with universal praise. Four days later, Geneva citizens voted in favor of a new crossing of Lake Geneva. While the two events seem to follow a significant, historic tradition of Switzerland’s role in facilitating European transit, the differences are more important than the similarities.
Switzerland has always been an important focus of routes in the heart of Europe. Since the time of the Romans, Switzerland has been a pivotal geographic center in east-west and north-south transportation. Mountains have been ingeniously crossed and lakes creatively circumvented.
On the occasion of the Tunnel’s opening, the New York Times called the crossing of the Alps “something of a national obsession” with the Swiss. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi joined Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann in celebrating the 57 kilometer train route that dramatically increases rail connections within Switzerland as well as between northern and southern Europe.
The construction of the tunnel was a major political and engineering feat. Swiss voters approved the final plan in 1992 in spite of environmental opposition. The tunnel took 17 years to build and cost over $12 billion. France’s President Hollande, in a bow to his smaller neighbor and faced with rail strikes at home, praised Swiss engineering and efficiency.
All this background is to praise the project, from its inception to completion, and to introduce another obsession that has been less successful and where there remains little light at the end of the tunnel, or bridge. An auto route crossing of Lake Geneva was approved by 62% of Genevans on June 5, 2016.
While the Gotthard Tunnel was under discussion since the 1940’s, this crossing has been under consideration for over 100 years. The Geneva vote avoids describing how the road will be paid for – approximate cost now is $3 billion. It also avoids fundamental questions of whether there will be a bridge or tunnel and exactly where the crossing will be. In other words, the vote was one of principle that has few specifics. Optimists say the vote is a positive step. Pessimists disagree, and quote the adage: “The devil is in the details.” One can easily imagine future votes on the financing, exact route, etc. There will be more discussions. There will be more votes. And each delay increases the costs. And the beat goes on.
This reminds me of a joke about Switzerland told to me by a Swiss doctor. A pregnant Swiss woman goes to her Swiss doctor just before the baby is due. The doctor confirms that all is well. Days pass. The baby is not born around the due date. The woman continues to visit the doctor. The doctor shows no sense of urgency; he continues to say all is well. Weeks pass. Months pass. Years pass. Finally, the woman dies. An autopsy is performed. Two aging, respectful Swiss twins are seen and heard talking inside the womb. One turns to the other and says: “After you.” The other politely replies: No, after you.”
The Gotthard Tunnel represents a noteworthy triumph for Swiss politics, engineering and efficiency. The constant postponing of the crossing of Lake Geneva represents a ringing condemnation of all the weaknesses of Geneva politics.
Just do it!