Istanbul’s Big Dig

Is there a dark side to Turkey's glittering array of multi-billion-dollar massive infrastructure projects?


ISTANBUL — For her 90th birthday, which she celebrated on Tuesday, Turkey received a new train set. And what a train set it is. Istanbul’s Marmaray tunnel, launched last week on the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, is the world’s first underwater intercontinental rail link. It’s also the deepest tunnel of its kind, with its nearly one mile of tube laying more than 200 feet below sea level, on the bed of the Bosporus Strait. Construction began in 2004 but suffered numerous delays after workers stumbled onto the remains of an ancient Byzantine harbor in 2005.

So far, only three of the system’s stops are operational — two on Istanbul’s European side and one in Asia. By 2015, however, more than 30 existing stations will have been integrated into the line, stretching its length to almost 50 miles, and bringing the project’s total cost to roughly $4.5 billion. Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said that once the Marmaray line is in full swing, trains will zoom between continents carrying up to 1.5 million passengers per day.

"Whether they like us or not, whether they vote for us or not," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at last week’s opening ceremony, "all of my brothers in Istanbul and Turkey ought to feel proud of this project."

Marmaray is bound to be one of Erdogan’s most popular projects. Istanbul’s population, now estimated at nearly 15 million, has grown by hundreds of thousands per year, the city itself having spread in every direction possible, but its rail network has lagged behind miserably. As a result, Istanbul is choking on some of the planet’s worst traffic.

According to a recent study by TomTom, a maker of car navigation systems, local drivers experience an average of 85 stop-starts every day, more than anywhere else in the world. A 25-mile trip across town during rush hour can take up to three hours by car. With Marmaray, and with the revamped subway system that is to feed into the tunnel, it should take under 50 minutes. Overall, the project is expected to relieve Istanbul traffic by as much as 20 percent.

Marmaray is only the first in a long line of gifts that Erdogan’s government is preparing for Turkey and Istanbul ahead of the country’s centenary in 2023. Work has already begun on a third bridge over the Bosporus, which is expected to open in 2015, and on a giant mosque accommodating up to 37,500 faithful, planned for the following year. A new international airport, one of the world’s largest, is will open around 2017 and keep on expanding well into the 2020s. And on the Turkish Republic’s 100th birthday itself, the government plans to unveil the biggest project of the whole bunch — a 25-mile long artificial canal connecting the Black and Marmara Seas, called Kanal Istanbul.

Erdogan’s message to Turks with these projects is compellingly simple: "Think big." That’s the slogan plastered in capital letters across his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP’s) election billboards, touting the party ahead of municipal elections next year. Erdogan’s government prides itself on getting things done, and the prime minister has talked ambitiously about transforming Turkey into a regional superpower and one of the world’s 10- largest economies by 2023. These projects are the physical embodiment of that vision.

"[T]his government is successful because it has substantially improved the living standards of the majority of people," says Sahin Alpay, a columnist and lecturer at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. "But this government has to a large extent also given Turks self-confidence to think, ‘We can make it.’"

"Of course," he adds, "whether a project like the canal running parallel to the Bosporus will ever be possible to implement or whether it makes sense is another thing."

That’s the inconvenient truth that could potentially mar Turkey’s development in the years to come. Erdogan’s projects are meant to announce Turkey’s arrival on the world stage — but they could also showcase a darker side of how the country is run. Many of the development plans are already coming under fire: The new bridge and the new airport, environmentalists warn, may spell disaster for the burgeoning city’s last patch of natural forest. The Kanal Istanbul, which is intended to divert tanker traffic away from the Bosporus and could cost as much as $15 billion, threatens to create havoc in the ecosystems of the two seas it will join. The $60 million Camlica mosque, critics say, is little more than a vanity project.

The Marmaray line itself has come under some criticism, especially after a power blackout and technical problems caused several delays on the first day of service. This mishap revived concerns that the project had been rushed through to meet the Oct. 29 deadline. In a statement, the national rail authority insisted that the trains had come to a halt not because of any technical malfunction but because "some passengers who got on for the first time pushed the emergency button."

A more serious concern is the risk of earthquake damage. Here, officials and experts have done their best to reassure Turks that the tunnel, built just 11 miles north of an active fault line, would hold up during a major earthquake, the likelihood of which some scientists place at 70 percent over the next two decades. "Marmaray is safer than any other structure in Istanbul," Yilidirim said during a briefing with journalists. Mustafa Erdik, head of the Department of Earthquake Engineering at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, was similarly confident. "As far as earthquake resistance design is concerned, I think it’s above all of its peers," he tells Foreign Policy.

Erdogan’s propensity for massive infrastructure might have endeared him to his base, but it has also alienated those Turks who are starting to think green rather than big. In a city gradually starved of green spaces — and where the planned demolition of a tiny park was enough to spark the biggest anti-government protests in years this summer — the premier might have to tread lightly. "An economy that is headed by the construction sector is creating an unlivable city," says Imre Azem, director of Ecumenopolis, an award-winning documentary on Istanbul’s uncontrolled sprawl. "Whatever the cause of the Gezi protests was, it’s going to be multiplied with these projects."

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola