Italy wants funding review of rail link with France as government feuds

ROME (Reuters) – Italy called on Thursday for a funding review of a high-speed rail link with France, a multi-billion-dollar project that threatens to tear apart Rome’s ruling coalition.

FILE PHOTO: Part of the tunnel of a high-speed train line, known as TAV (Treno Alta Velocita) is seen in Saint-Martin-de-la-Porte, France, November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca//File Photo

The Alpine rail line is backed by the ruling League party but is fiercely opposed by its coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, which argues Italy’s share of the funding would be better spent upgrading existing roads and bridges.

The TAV project (Treno Alta Velocita) is a joint venture between the Italian and French states to link the cities of Turin and Lyon through a 58km (36 mile) tunnel through the Alps on which work has already begun.

The European Union has pledged to fund up to 40 percent of costs, Italy up to 35 percent and France up to 25 percent.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday that recently updated traffic projections for the line warranted a review of the project’s long-term viability and, if necessary, a renegotiation of the way the funding is split.

“Further (coalition) meetings will be necessary given a final agreement has not yet been reached,” Conte said in a statement following talks that went late into Wednesday night between leaders of the League and 5-Star.

In a news conference later in the day Conte said he had strong personal doubts about the validity of the project and he would take responsibility for a final decision based on a cost-benefit analysis already carried out by the government.

That analysis, commissioned by Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, a 5-Star politician, found the venture was a waste of public money, estimating the economic return would be a negative balance of between 7.0-7.8 billion euros ($7.9-$8.8 billion).

Conte, who is not a member of either ruling party but it closer to 5-Star, called the funding of the TAV “iniquitous” and said he would speak to France and the EU “to share our doubts and perplexities.”

Despite these doubts, he acknowledged the ruling coalition remains “deadlocked” over the issue, as a Monday deadline approaches when the tenders must be launched to build or block key parts of the project.

The right-wing League and the anti-establishment 5-Star have often been at loggerheads since forming an unlikely alliance last year after inconclusive elections.

There is growing media speculation the Alpine rail link could be the issue that finally brings it down, but Conte dismissed this prospect as “absurd” and said the dispute between the ruling parties was transparent and constructive.

5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio, heartened by Conte’s clearly-expressed doubts over the TAV, said he thanked him for his “words of responsibility.”

League leader Matteo Salvini made no immediate comment.

($1 = 0.8841 euros)

additional reporting by Gavin Jones and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Bendeich, Jon Boyle and Alexandra Hudson

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