Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, breathed new life into a multi-billion-dollar plan to build the world’s longest suspension bridge between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland.

The bridge, the subject of fierce debate for three decades and a symbol of Italy’s chronic planning delays, would stretch for more than two miles across the Strait of Messina from Sicily to the region of Calabria.

It would have the world’s longest main span of 10,826 ft. The current record-holder is Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo bridge, with a central span of 6,532 ft.

Almost 200 ft wide, Italy’s new bridge would be supported by two 1,306 ft pillars, each higher than the Empire State Building in New York, and carry six motorway lanes, a railway for up to 200 trains a day and two pedestrian walkways.

Berlusconi has long championed the bridge as a stimulus to the economically depressed south. Supporters see it as a huge job-creation scheme and a boost for tourism. Opponents say it will be an ecological disaster, vulnerable to high winds, earthquakes and tidal waves, and a boon for the mafia.

Berlusconi, 72, is confident that work will begin next year and be completed in 2016.

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