The capitals of Finland and Estonia are so close, yet so far. Just 86 kilometres, or 55 miles, separate Helsinki and Tallinn—but it still takes more than two hours on a ferry through the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea to travel that distance.
Linking the two high-tech coastal cities has been discussed, off and on, since 1871.
One night in 2016, while eating dinner with friends during a startup event in Tallinn, Peter Vesterbacka—who played a crucial role in the development and expansion of the Angry Birds mobile-game franchise for Rovio Entertainment—decided it was finally time to connect them.
“I haven’t built tunnels before… [I have] no background in building infrastructure, but my approach is, ‘How difficult can it be?’” Vesterbacka told me over the phone. Though he hasn’t got a particular title, his role in all this is to play the part of the hype man—that is, rallying interest and support for the project, often through bombastic and occasionally controversial statements. For example, he calls the tunnel a metaphor for democracy and “the last hope of the free world” in an era where other countries are building walls.
Vesterbacka is taking a page from the Elon Musks of the world—wealthy entrepreneurs who think they can do a better, faster job of building infrastructure and supplying transportation than governments can. (Musk is also focused on building tunnels with The Boring Company.) The Estonian and Finnish governments are already planning a tunnel, called the FinEst Link, slated for opening in 2040. Vesterbacka says his tunnel—a separate, independent project—will be open on December 24, 2024.
Vesterbacka, who went by the title “Mighty Eagle” at Rovio between 2010–2016, is an influential member of Finland’s tech-startup community and fancies himself an agitator—a big thinker, maker, and ideas man who gets things done. It’s with this mindset that he’s approaching the FinEst (pronounced “finest”) Bay Area tunnel, a $15-billion underwater high-speed rail passenger and freight tunnel built with private financing from Chinese backers. He told me he’s gathered a four-member consortium of engineering and development companies, some investors, and a few allies within the government and startup scene.
The tunnel would get people between the airports in Helsinki and Tallinn in 20 minutes. He said the tunnel would pay for itself within 37 years based on current projections, citing train ticket fares as the main revenue driver.
Estonian and Finnish leaders appear to be cautiously intrigued with Vesterbacka’s ideas. They seem to like Vesterbacka’s enthusiasm, if not his approach.
Eva Killar, an executive officer for transport development and investments within the Estonian government, called his 2024 timeline “very, very optimistic.”
“Mr. Vesterbacka is dealing with this project as he has been dealing with startups, but the truth is that major infrastructural projects needs more planning than just ‘we deal with the problem if we see it,’” said Killar in an email to Motherboard.
Finland’s transport minister, meanwhile, told a local paper the government has a “positive attitude” about private financing for the tunnel. The director of the European Commission said it doesn’t really matter who builds the tunnel as long as it conforms to EU standards.
Though it’s exclusively for trains, the tunnel isn’t really about transportation for Vesterbacka. Rather, it’s an elaborate and expensive showcasing of the region’s tech business prowess, particularly in the mobility-as-a-service field where Finland is a leader. He sees the tunnel as a way for the region—which he calls “the heart of Eurasia”—to deepen its business ties throughout the Asian continent.
“I don’t know if ‘tunnel factory’ would be an appropriate term, but…"
He anticipates the tunnel will help attract more companies, investments, acquisitions, startups, and talent to both Finland and Estonia. It would also help connect these Nordic countries to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative, a $1+ trillion project meant to improve connectivity and collaboration among Eurasian nations. “The tunnel is interesting, but what’s happening around the tunnel is where excitement happens,” said Vesterbacka.
He expects to begin drilling in 2018, assuming permits are delivered on time. The project—which is being managed by a four-member consortium of engineering and development companies—will supposedly run 12 Chinese tunnel-boring machines simultaneously and continuously to dig the 100-kilometre tunnel in under five years.
Vesterbacka explained that the material extracted from the ground as the tunnel is dug out would be used to create two small islands, one off the coast of each country. Both islands would serve as rail stations, while the one near Helsinki would double as a condo village that would house about 50,000 people. He said he’d likely give the island to Helsinki to manage. (Vesterbacka isn’t currently involved in building these units; rather, he’s projecting that real-estate developers will flock to the area on their own.)
Once the FinEst Bay Area tunnel is built, Vesterbacka intends to keep moving. “I don’t know if ‘tunnel factory’ would be an appropriate term, but… we want to make this a repeatable engagement.”
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