(MENAFN - AFP) France and Italy on Monday took another step forward on a controversial 20-year-old plan to build a high-speed rail track linking their countries via a tunnel under the Alps.
In a move intended to underline the two governments' commitment to the 26-billion-euro (34 billion) scheme, transport ministers signed an accord on the financing of a 57-kilometre (35-mile) tunnel under the Alps that accounts for a third of the estimated total cost.
It is now 21 years since the idea of the rail link was launched at a Franco-Italian summit. It is scheduled to come on line in 2028 at the earliest.
Supporters claim it will take a million heavy lorries off the saturated roads between Italy and France, as transalpine freight switches to rail, cutting CO2 emissions by three million tonnes a year.
French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti see the project as emblematic of the pro-growth agenda they have jointly promoted within the EU.
But critics argue it could become a white elephant subsidised by unjustifiable injections of national and European funds at a time when every other area of public spending is being tightened.
It was initially supported by green groups, but they have since turned against it. Hundreds of activists gathered Monday in Lyon to make their opinions heard.
The existing Mont-Cenis rail tunnel between the two countries was built in the 19th century. It is regarded as inefficient because it was built at an altitude of 1,300 metres -- and on a slope. That means up to three train engines are required to get heavy cargoes through and it currently operates at only 30-percent of its capacity.
In Italy, the No-TAV (Treno Alta Velocita) movement has been much bigger than the protests in France. It has broadened its focus to combatting austerity programme imposed by Monti's government in response to the eurozone debt crisis.
The campaigners took heart from a November report by France's public spending watchdog, the Cour de Comptes, which savaged the poor management, vague financing arrangements and rising costs associated with the project.
The government, it said, "should not hastily rule out the alternative of upgrading the existing line".
That statement increased the pressure on Hollande and Monti to reaffirm their commitment to the project amid scepticism about whether the funds are really in place.
Paris and Rome are pushing for 40 percent of the cost of the tunnel to come from the EU, the maximum available for strategic cross-border projects.
But that has been thrown into doubt because of the uncertainty over the 2014-20 EU budget, which is still to be agreed. Britain and Germany are currently blocking any increase above inflation.