Norway's rugged west coast is home to glaciers, waterfalls and dozens of fjords that draw hordes of tourists each summer. But navigating the extreme topography of the region, which is home to a third of the country's population, isn't easy.
Driving the nearly 700 miles along the coastal route from the city of Kristiansand in the south to the city of Trondheim now takes about 21 hours and requires seven ferry crossings. To cut travel time in half, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration has launched a nearly $40 billion transportation project that will include the world's longest floating bridge and — perhaps — a first-of-its-kind floating underwater traffic tunnel.
"In the history of Norway, this is one of the really greatest infrastructure projects ever," says Kjersti Kvalheim Dunham, who is managing the project, which runs along Norway's E39 highway. The closest equivalent transport project in Norway is the 308-mile railway from Oslo to Bergen, which was completed more than a century earlier.
Government officials say replacing the ferries will make it more convenient for travelers and also help people in the region look farther afield for jobs and boost the local economy. Kåre Martin Kleppe is the mayor of Tysnes, a collection of islands about an hour and 45 minutes south of the city of Bergen by road and ferry. Kleppe, who at 26 is Norway's youngest mayor, looks forward to having a floating bridge replace the ferry and cut travel time across the fjord from 40 minutes to five.
"The ferry is a beautiful trip, but it's more an obstacle than a good connection," says Kleppe, standing on a dock looking out over the gray waters of the fjord as seagulls circle overhead.
The population of Tysnes has fallen by half over the past century to about 2,800. Kleppe says better transport connections will encourage more investment and make it easier for the region's fishing industry to get its salmon to market.
"It's a saying that there's nothing in the world that is in a bigger rush than a dead fish," Kleppe says.
Conventional cable-stayed bridges and tunnels won't work in parts of Norway's west coast because some of the fjords are simply too deep. For instance, the Bjornafjorden is more than 1,800 feet deep.
The government's solution is to build a bridge that would float on pontoons that would be connected to the fjord's silted seabed with suction anchors. Norway, the United States, Poland, Belarus and other countries already use floating bridges. Another fjord, the Sulafjorden, which is 1,300 feet deep, poses a similar challenge. One possible solution is something no one has ever built before: a submerged, floating traffic tunnel.
Arianna Minoretti, an Italian engineer who works for the public road administration, says the tunnel could be made of concrete to provide ballast and float about 100 feet below the surface. It could be fastened to floating pontoons or tethered to the sea bed. Minoretti says there is something of a global race to see who can build the first floating underwater traffic tunnel.
"When I started working with this type of structure, I felt really excited," says Minoretti, who came to Norway specifically to work on the E39 project. "You can be an engineer and live your [whole] life without having this chance."
Of course, there are dangers. Norwegian submarines train in the fjords, so there's the risk of collision. A terrorist's bomb could rip open the tunnel, sending water pouring in, which is why, Minoretti says, the Norwegian government is working very carefully on designs.
Engineers test some of the potential materials for the bridge at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the city of Trondheim. Vegard Aune, an associate professor in structural engineering, simulates the effects of a bomb blast on thick slabs of concrete using compressed air inside a giant, blue, steel "shock" tube. For instance, he has tested the limits of materials if they were subjected to a 1,700-pound vehicle bomb at a distance of nearly 100 feet.
"We want to learn more about how the material behaves," Aune says, "what's the capacity of the material."
Engineers will then use that information to help design the tunnel accordingly.
The purpose of this bold transportation project is to replace the ferries and slash travel time, but talk to people on the ferries and you'll find they love the ride and the tradition. They see it as an enforced rest in increasingly hectic lives, an opportunity to sip coffee with friends and munch on svele, a Norwegian snack that resembles a pancake, as the mountains pass by.
"Keep the ferries; skip the tunnels," says Kjell Mevic, who works in the merchant marine and is enjoying the ride one afternoon with his wife and cousins. Mevic, who wears a black T-shirt that reads, "Born to Fish, Forced to Work," says he is particularly concerned about the proposals for a submerged floating tunnel, which he sees as a natural target for terrorists.
"An explosion in the tunnel will be like [popping] a bottle of champagne," he said. "Kaboom. Nothing left."
Norwegians are sensitive to terror threats. In 2011, an anti-Muslim extremist now named Fjotolf Hansen, formerly Anders Behring Breivik, gunned down 69 mostly young people at a summer camp on Utoya island, after killing eight people with a car bomb in Oslo.
Many along Norway's west coast are skeptical about the transport project because of the huge cost and aren't convinced it will ever be completed. But others look forward to a time when they won't have to rush to catch the next ferry, which is what Svein Bjarne Aase, a bus driver, was doing as church let out one Sunday in the town of Leirvik.
"It will be much easier for everybody," says Aase as he walks swiftly to his car. "I think that is our future, to get a bridge or tunnel under the sea."