Russia is again considering an ambitious plan that dates back to czarist times: building a tunnel under the Bering Sea to Alaska. While few Americans have heard of the project, it has the strong support of a former Alaskan governor. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports.

The idea to tunnel under the Bering Sea first emerged more than a century ago under the last Russian czar, Nicholas II. Tunnel proponents have revived the idea in recent years, most recently on Wednesday, when it was repeated in Moscow by Viktor Razbegin, the deputy head of industrial research at the Russian ministry of economic development and trade.

Razbegin said the project would take up to 15 years at an estimated cost of $10 to $12 billion. However, another $55 billion would be needed to build thousands of kilometers of rail lines to link both ends of the tunnel with the nearest rail terminals.

Former Alaska governor and U.S. Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, an American proponent of the project, dismisses the technical challenges. Indeed, he says it would not be a big engineering project. Hickel told the VOA that the economic payoff for Russia and the United States would be substantial.

"America's resources are sort of above the ground - wheat corn, cotton," said Walter Hickel. "Cattle, all that stuff. Theirs is in the ground - iron ore, coal, copper, diamonds - all that stuff. It's big. You just have to understand that Siberia itself - I've been there several times - is twice as big as the United States. Just Siberia."

Governor Hickel said few people in the United States are even aware of the proposed tunnel. Nonetheless, he has lobbied the issue in Washington and plans to speak at a tunnel conference in Moscow next week.

Plans call for a tunnel that would surface on the Little and Big Diomede Islands (Gvozdev Islands), where the United States and Russia are only three kilometers apart. The tunnel would carry a railway, highway, pipelines, fiber optic lines and power cables.

Critics dismiss the project as a pipedream, citing the distant location, harsh environmental conditions and huge costs associated with a tunnel nearly 100 kilometers long.

Governor Hickel, however, says it will not only be built, but that it will change the world.

"It would be tremendous," he said. "You could take a railroad from Kansas and go around the world. It'll be this transportation thing. This is going to be a key to the world."

Alaska belonged to Russia until 1867, when the United Stated purchased the territory for $7.2 million. It became the 49th American state in 1959.