In Rome, a race to the millennium

Sun Journal

Jubilee: The Vatican's yearlong celebration is expected to draw 29 million additional visitors to the Eternal City, and some people worry the construction projects won't be ready.

July 08, 1999|By Jeff Israely | Jeff Israely,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ROME -- No one in this ancient capital worries about the Y2K sky falling at the end of the millennium. There are more pressing concerns -- traffic jams of biblical dimension, construction sites that will be finished God-knows-when, and don't even mention those blessed tour buses.

Anticipation and anxiety mix as Rome prepares for the Roman Catholic Church's millennial-year Jubilee, a yearlong event billed as a sort of once-in-a-lifetime religious and cultural World's Fair. It is expected to pump billions of dollars into the Italian economy and attract international attention well into the next century.

But for now, the crunch is on, as the Eternal City faces a six-month race to prepare for the arrival of an expected 29 million additional Holy Year visitors to Rome and other notable Italian locales between Christmas and January 2001.

Planned public-improvement projects are behind schedule. Scaffolding covers some of the most prized cultural landmarks, and officials scurry to ensure enough hotel beds and bus seats.

A case of `nervosissimi'

Near the picturesque Campo dei Fiori is the Pizzeria Alla Pala, whose employees have a range of concerns about what will happen when the clock strikes 2000. But all declare that the prospect of the Jubilee year in Rome makes them "nervosissimi!"

Stefania Marturano worries that the bus she takes to work, which shuttles between the central train station and the Vatican, will become unbearably crowded. Stefania Fenu has already heard that real estate prices are skyrocketing as landlords reserve their apartments for pilgrims with deep pockets. And the pizzeria's owner, Emiglio Erriu, doubts that business will improve much because, he says, most people are coming on organized trips with meals included.

"We see all this preparation, all these work sites," says Fenu, between serving rectangular slices of pizza. "But no one's thinking about life for the Roman people."

The Jubilee Observatory, a citizens watchdog group, has been circulating petitions that call for a ban on tourist buses in the center of the city and the relocation of major religious gatherings to the periphery of Rome.

The city estimates that during the Jubilee highlight events, such as Christmas, Easter and a summer youth gathering, 3,000 bus coaches will come to Rome, compared with 600 to 900 during a normal high tourist season.

"Every day, 600,000 mopeds and 2 million cars circulate in this city," says Giovanni Negri, head of the citizens group. "You can imagine what will happen when 30 million pilgrims arrive."

Another concern is the unpredictable effects of the country's seemingly perpetual labor negotiations. Union leaders, who have protested the use of black-market labor at renovation projects, have rejected government appeals for a no-strike pledge for next year.

Public transportation work stoppages, which are a normal inconvenience of Roman life, would cripple the city if they occurred when it was overflowing with extra Holy Year visitors.

But the most immediate concern is dressing and fixing up the city in time for the start of the new year.

A government-commissioned study released this year said seven of 10 public-works projects might not be completed by the Dec. 31 deadline. Among the most crucial "at risk" works are four key transportation improvements in and around Rome -- renovating the Tiburtina train station; adding a third lane to the highway connecting the city to Fiumicino international airport; building an underground walkway to an 800-car parking lot under Janiculum Hill above the Vatican; and redesigning the port of Civitavecchia, a town 45 miles north of Rome.

These and other sites have been causing nightmares for motorists. The site near the Vatican causes constant rerouting of central Rome traffic, requiring cars to be detoured back and forth on the Tiber River's narrow bridges.

But city officials have tried to assure residents that the disruption is worth it, noting the additional jobs, including 3,000 in hotels, while the $1.6 billion in public improvements being made for visitors will benefit the city for a lifetime.

Rome's mayor, Francesco Rutelli, expects "the great majority" of the approximately 700 open Jubilee projects to be completed in time. "The inconvenience that Romans are living with today will surely be repaid with important changes to improve the best aspects of the capital," he assures. But he reminds anyone thinking of coming next year to make all reservations and arrangements ahead of time -- or stay home.

The risk is that, according to the Jubilee financing measure passed by the federal government in 1997, any projects not completed by the end of this year will lose their funding, potentially leaving half-completed construction sites around the city.

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