Field of Dreams

Lobau: A Case of ‘If You Build it, They Will Come’

The current traffic problems along Vienna’s South-East tangent and the Danube crossings have made the construction of a new motorway seemingly inevitable.  Originally planned to go through the Lobau National Park, nearly four years of public demonstrations have pressured the government instead to build a much more expensive and technically far more advanced solution – a tunnel 8.5 km long and 60 meters deep, under the whole National Park.

An aerial photo of planned construction showing the extent of the project | Photo: Rettet die Lobau

With the Lobau in danger activists have raised their voices repeatedly in protest.  One such occasion was the September gathering at the Venster 99 club for a reggae concert and fundraiser for “Save the Lobau.”

Many Austrians are sympathetic. With an expected increase in automobile traffic of 40 to 50% in Vienna and 30% nationwide by 2015, some 84% of Viennese believe traffic is so intense that there is no other option but to build additional highways. But not through the Lobau. Nearly as many (83%) say that the National Park should be protected at all costs. A further three quarters are also willing to pay higher taxes for the more expensive tunnel.

At the Venster 99, the mood was chilled-out, a space of low sofas, and 50s décor, wooden TV sets showing tapes of Tom and Jerry cartoons, while a slow reggae beat was playing in the background. Organizers were just finishing up a final few details for the concert scheduled for an hour later, while others chatted over a drink. Roughly half the people did not seem to be there for a larger purpose, however, but rather just for a good party.

Most outspoken of the people at the Venster 99 was Jutta Matysek, 33 years old and an experienced activist. Having participated in demonstrations for Greenpeace, Global 2000, Resistance and Virus she knows the how and the what of demonstrating.  Her reasons for getting involved in this particular project were multifold.  For one thing, if the project goes through, she might lose her job working with handicapped children at a riding stable in the area. Besides, she thinks it is wrong that the government would jeopardize a beautiful National Park recreation area rich full of plant and wild life for revenue that average people would never see.

“The real irony of this project is that a motorway already exists only 50 km to the east,” said Matysek. And there are a number of possible consequences that the general public has not been informed about, most important, the possibility of old and long forgotten oil spills WWII bombings of a near by power plant that could escape from underground caves where they have been trapped for 60 years. “The scary part is that most people don’t even know about the project at all, much less the consequences,” Matysek added.

Pulling out an array of maps and plans, she repeatedly emphasized that she sees the project as futile; for the highway and the tunnel are not needed.  The new motorway is part of a larger planned project, connecting Gdansk on the Polish Baltic Coast to central Europe, so this tunnel will probably not solve the traffic problem in the end at all. Rather, by opening up a new, high performance route, she fears that new cavalcades of trucks and commercial vehicles will choose the Vienna route on their way south towards the Mediterranean Sea, causing larger cues – and more pollution – in Vienna.

And while the tunnel meets all safety requirements, other activists suspect that the ventilation chimneys – designed to rise 30-50 meters above the ground – will still emit high amounts of pollution directly onto the Lobau.  They suggest instead that the vast funds set aside for the tunnel be used on the further development of public transportation and the expansion and renewal of the railway.

The question is really whether people are willing to leave their cars in the garage and commute by public transit instead.

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