A Superhighway Across the Bering Strait

Russia is considering a plan to build a superhighway from Eurasia to North America.

A Russian-flagged tanker carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel follows a path made in the ice by the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

And it’s not that some New Yorker would ever undertake a road trip three-quarters of the way around the world on a lark—but the idea that she could is kind of thrilling. All this may sound wild, but also familiar: This is not a new idea.

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Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait. The 1860s saw a Russian-American company draw plans for an overland telegraph line, which was halted by the success of the Atlantic cables. Thirty years later, the designer of the Golden Gate Bridge devoted his college thesis to blueprints of a Siberian-Alaskan railroad bridge. And in 1906, Czar Nicholas II even approved a Bering Strait bridge project—ultimately slashed at the onset of WWI. (In fact some folks, like historian and journalist William Engdahl, believe that British financial interests created the conditions for WWI in order to prevent the construction of a Bering Strait tunnel, as Atlantic-based financial interests worried over losing maritime economic dominance.)

But it didn’t stop there. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt instructed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a survey for rail linking Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48, but this project was overshadowed by what became the more urgent need to build the Alaskan Highway. And in 2009, there were feasibility studies conducted under then-Governor Sarah Palin’s administration if not for rail transit to a Bering Strait tunnel, then for energy and fresh water to states shriveling from drought. When, according to The Washington Post, the estimated cost came up at $3 billion, all plans were abandoned. Still, China—as recently as May—is toiling over a Chinese-Canadian crossing that would utilize the Bering Strait tunnel were it ever to be built.

Given the massive costs and unpredictable engineering challenges associated with such projects, not to mention political obstacles, none have come to fruition. And in addition to those setbacks, today’s TEPR may have difficulty selling ground transportation as a viable alternative to flying. So why do they keep coming up? (And even if that hypothetical New Yorker could wheel her way to continental Europe—would she? Through thousands of miles of freezing wilderness?)

Perhaps that’s the wrong question. While the image of the East and West joined by casual passenger traffic is romantic, the real return would be new channels of energy resource transport, as well as oil and gas development in the arctic. Yakunin, the Russian Railways executive, said the TEPR would include gas and oil pipelines to help boost the country’s energy profits, creating a dozen new industries and countless jobs, and a more dynamic global economy. The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

Bering Strait tunnel or no, Russia has already begun building railway through its Far East, in hopes to expand the energy economies in its distant provinces. Moscow and Beijing are moving forward with the construction of a high speed train between the two cities via Siberia, funded chiefly by the state-run China Railway High-speed, according to Business Insider: “The Moscow-to-Beijing direct route will measure about 7,000 kilometers (4,340 miles), effectively three times farther than the longest high-speed railway in the world, the Beijing-to-Guangzhou train, which is also operated by CRH.”

In his 2013 keynote speech at the Schiller Institute, structural engineer Hal Cooper (of Cooper Consulting Co., Kirkland, Washington)—a rare American proponent of the Bering Strait tunnel, and who has met with Yakunin in the past—reported that the rail to the coastal Magadan is being designed now. He described Russia’s plans to build single-track diesel cars, and later, double-track electric, in addition to a four-lane highway, and “probably natural gas pipelines, too.” He believes that all of this will foster the development of northeastern Russia, whether or not the Bering Strait Tunnel gets built--but that such development would be exponentially more profitable if it does.

“Russia’s moving along with that and they’re not going to stop,” Cooper told me. He estimates that the Bering Strait tunnel could facilitate transport of “up to one and a half million barrels a day… from Alberta to China, and that alone would be enough to economically justify the project.”

But there are very few Americans even talking about this project, let alone actively promoting it. One of them, of course, is Cooper, who, in 2006, finished a 2,326-page feasibility study for the Bering Strait tunnel (which was sponsored by the Canadian Arctic Railway Company, whose owner later went bankrupt). And the other is Russian-born Alaskan businessman Fyodor “Theo” Soloview, about whom Cooper says, “He and I seem to be that last two men standing [on this issue] in North America at the moment.”

Soloview started InterBering LLC, a consulting group that lobbies for the Bering Strait railway tunnel. (His other business ventures include supplying the Russian Far East with American consumer goods in the 1990s, running an art gallery and gift shop, and inventing a genealogical card game called Six Generations). When I ask him about the lack of North American interest in the Bering Strait tunnel, Soloview blames politicians for being too shortsighted: “It is a combination of lack of historical vision and patience for both politicians and businessmen,” he said. “No politician was really interested to fulfill this project because everyone who runs [for] office is too old to see this project done.” Soloview says the Bering Strait tunnel is better off as private sector project, anyway, at least in part because any agreements made with Putin would be moot under a new administration. Besides, why would the public sector invest, with Russia’s economy in the tank?

The issue left unaddressed in both my conversations with Cooper and Soloview is that none of this would be possible unless current diplomatic tensions are resolved, and furthermore that there is no natural constituency in the U.S. to support the project. James Brooke reports for Voice of America that, unlike Europe’s Chunnel, “there are two islands along the Bering route—geographical factors that would ease construction and allow for ventilation and emergency access.” This is a point that proponents for the project often make. But the comparison brings together countries with totally disparate civic values: Western Europe invests in infrastructure; America invests in defense.

The project is almost mystical in its proportions. Were it to succeed, it would be among the largest infrastructure projects in history. So the Bering Strait tunnel is, in effect, a fantastical plan at this point, tantamount to the space elevator—another proposed Russian-American collaboration spanning the 20th century—and will almost certainly never be a popular use of American funds.

And the thing we have to remember about the proposal is that, despite the rhetoric, the real impetus is driven largely—if not primarily—by private investment from oil and gas. That old Cosmopolitan Railway ideal of William Gilpin’s seems, then, merely a cipher: this is not exactly a global railway bringing together “humankind as citizens in the world,” but rather linking the private interests of a powerful few.

The far-off financial returns or consequences of the tunnel are not of special concern to me, but discussion of the tunnel does incite my great disappointment in the collective national impasse on optimistic engineering projects. It brings up, for me at least, a sort of whimsical wish for my country to start building stuff again, great stuff, crazy stuff, even—not a tunnel across the Bering Strait, but maybe high speed commuter rail connecting the megatropolis along I-95.

And it gives me pause. When people know they are going to die, they stop making plans. I suspect this is true for countries, too. So what about building things that last? What about great railways and manned missions to the moon?

Surely a country that built nearly 48,000 miles of Interstate highway, and cordoned off not only the world’s first national park, but a federal body that constructed and maintains 84 million acres of preserved land, is still capable of building something like a high-speed interstate rail from Boston to Washington, D.C., or New York City to Buffalo, or Los Angeles to Chicago. Surely we are still able to not only figure out how to build, but how to rally around great projects. I think, too, of projects smaller though equally full of some combination of hubris and good will, like the 1929 attempt to fashion a zeppelin dock on the top of the Empire State Building—a project which produced larger than life blueprints, but which was never about zeppelins, really, and rather about coming up with an excuse to have the tallest building in the world.

But the hypothetical New Yorker who gets to wake up and make plans to drive to Paris seems too fantastical, really. As any New Yorker knows, she’s been held up in subway traffic now for almost a decade, waiting for Manhattan’s own multibillion dollar subterranean project: a mere 33 blocks of track for the phantom-like 2nd Avenue subway—which should be done any day now.