Following a debate of more than three hours, the House of Representatives on Wednesday agreed to drill an additional shaft and renovate the existing road tunnel after more than 30 years in operation.
The Senate had approved the bill in March. Wednesday’s discussions pitched centre-left parties against an alliance of the centre-right and the rightwing which had the upper hand with 109 votes against 74 and nine abstentions.
Four different proposals by the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberal Greens to send the bill back to the government for a review were thrown out.
The Gotthard tunnels in central Switzerland are a key transalpine route linking northern and southern Europe.
An initial 15km rail tunnel between Göschenen and Airolo opened for traffic in 1882.
A longer base tunnel for trains – including two single-track shafts measuring 57km – is due to open in June 2016.
The 16.9km Gotthard road tunnel opened for traffic in 1980. It is a single-bore tunnel with one lane operating in each direction from Göschenen to Airolo.
Supporters of the second shaft argued the government plan was in the interest of road safety, economically and environmentally sustainable and a sign of solidarity with the 300,000-strong community in the southern Swiss region of Ticino.
Opponents warned that a second road thoroughfare would inevitably lead to additional traffic, cost too much and breach a constitutional amendment to put transalpine road traffic onto rail.
The renovation and building project, scheduled to begin in 2020, costs about CHF2.7 billion ($2.9 billion).
The debate was marked by emotional statements and regional politics.
The left accused supporters of a second road tunnel of filibustering. All nine parliamentarians from Italian-speaking Ticino played an active role in the discussions, which were broadcast live on public television.
Christian Democrat Marco Romano said opponents of a second tunnel were showing no respect towards the Ticino region. He slammed them for being “anti-traffic ideologists”.
His party colleague, Markus Lehmann, said opponents were indirectly responsible for any future road death in the tunnel.
In the same vein, Adrian Amstutz from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party said it was “a disgrace to put human lives at stake for environmental ideologies”.
At least 19 people have lost their lives in collisions with other cars in the tunnel since 2001.
More than 18,000 vehicles, including heavy goods trucks, cross the 16.9km thoroughfare every day.
Regula Rytz of the Green Party said a second road tunnel was unconstitutional and not sustainable, although repairs were necessary.
“Supporters use the renovation to force through an increase in traffic capacity in breach of the constitution,” said Rytz, who is also a member of Alpine Initiative group.
“Promises not to operate both tubes with double lanes will be broken sooner rather than later,” she added.
Environmentalists said it would be cheaper to transfer traffic from road to rail than upgrading an existing service tunnel for traffic. They also warned of damage to the alpine environment as a result of increasing road traffic.
“If you sow new tunnels, you will reap more traffic,” said Jürg Grossen of the centrist Liberal Greens.
Social Democrat Marina Carobbio Guscetti said the government plans were “sabotaging the existing policy of putting road traffic on to rail”.
Transport Minister Doris Leuthard called for a more factual debate. She said there was no reason to make the Gotthard – one of nearly 230 tunnels in Switzerland – such an emotional issue.
She said the government proposal was sustainable and cost efficient in the interest of future generations, improved road safety and boosted the cohesion of the country.
Leuthard dismissed allegations that the government would cave in to pressure from the transport lobby and the European Union to increase the traffic capacity and allow two lanes per shaft.
“Such a decision would have to be put to a nationwide vote,” she said, adding that the EU is bound by a bilateral transport agreement and cannot force Switzerland to let more heavyweight trucks pass the main Swiss alpine road tunnel.
Referendum in the air
Environmental groups, including the Alpine Initiative as well as the Swiss branches of the WWF and Greenpeace, said they would challenge the parliamentary decision in a referendum.
Centre-left parties have pledged to support the alliance which has until January to collect the necessary 50,000 signatures for a nationwide vote.
The campaign is set to begin next month and senior officials of the Transport and Environment Association are confident of winning a public vote which could take place next year at the earliest.
“The people have always shown more understanding for the need to protect the alpine environment than parliament,” Evi Allemann, told the Blick newspaper.
In 1994, voters approved a proposal by environmentalists to put trucks crossing the major transalpine European passage onto rail.