Risky Crossing. Contractors wanted more time to submit bids. (Image Courtesy Of Stretto Di Messina)

Italy’s state-owned promoter of the ambitious, 3.7-kilometer-long, $6-billion Messina Strait bridge to Sicily is putting a brave face on the dwindling band of international contractors interested in bidding. Some of Europe's biggest players have pulled out because of inadequate time needed to prepare bids for what they see as such a risky project.

A bid date extension last month from April 20 to May 25 by owner Stretto di Messina S.p.A., Rome, failed to keep one team in play. By then, Paris-based Vinci Group had pulled out from another joint venture. Necessary engineering work "was impossible to be done in six months," says a Vinci spokeswoman. Firms from Japan and Spain also are believed to have quit. The two remaining teams have mostly Italian firms.

One team of three local contractors with France’s Bouygues S.A., the U.K.’s Cleveland Bridge Ltd., Spain’s Dragados S.A., and Austria’s Strabag A.G., pulled out last month, a week after hearing from SdM of the deadline extension. The firms had asked for two months extra last December but were denied, says Martin Ullrich, Strabag’s chief civil engineer.

The consortium received "around 200 kg" of bid documents from SdM last September and mobilized London-based engineers from Arup Group Ltd. and Mott MacDonald Group, says Ullrich. "We had a very good design crew of about 60 engineers," he adds. "We found it was not possible to submit a tender in time."

The joint venture "had no choice" but to quit, "especially because of the huge risks," says Ullrich. Among risks, the lump price must be fixed, regardless of world trends, he says. The contractor must take geological risk in the seismic zone. And the tight construction period allows for no margins, he adds. The consortium could have handled those risks, but was more concerned about taking responsibility for land acquisition, says Ullrich.

Italy’s Impregilo S.p.A., Milan, says it was ready to bid last month, despite losing Vinci from its ranks. Astaldi S.p.A., Rome, leads the other remaining team.

Denying that the project now lacks international credibility, SdM CEO Pietro Ciucci says the full extent of foreign participation will be known after May 25. He points to foreign interest in bidding for the role of project manager. SdM on May 9 named seven groups that would be asked to bid in September. They include Bechtel International Inc., Parsons, Louis Berger SAS and Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd.