Peter Vesterbacka is tired of destruction. His hit mobile game, Angry Birds, dominated the world after it was released in 2009, spawning sequels, merchandise, and a feature film, all dedicated to birds knocking over towers. Now, almost a decade later, he’s ready to move on from the franchise and build something entirely new: a giant, $18 billion tunnel between two countries.
The catch? The 80-mile-long tunnel would be almost entirely underwater.
“Digging is just a few billion [euros],” Vesterbacka, dressed in jeans and his trademark bright red hoodie, told BuzzFeed News in December at a Manhattan restaurant.
For Vesterbacka, a tunnel and high-speed railway between Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, makes total sense. The proposed tunnel would start from the Tallinn airport, dip under the the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea, and have three stops in Finland — an artificial island that Vesterbacka intends to build near Helsinki, another in the city itself, and finally at the Helsinki airport.
“Let’s say $15 billion and then it’s done. It’s pretty big,” he said between bites of his burger.
The idea of connecting the two Nordic countries first emerged in 1871, in a plan that wouldn’t seem out of place as an Angry Birds level: Finnish students proposed building a bridge, lifted by huge balloons to keep it over the sea. The idea to build a tunnel came to Vesterbacka during a dinner at a conference in Tallinn in May 2016. “When Finns and Estonians get together, they typically start talking about the need to cooperate more,” he said. “It happened again and then I thought that ok, I will finally build it. Let’s walk the walk.”
Vesterbacka, confident as ever in his Angry Birds hoodie, stood up and walked to the dinner table of Estonia’s then–minister of foreign affairs, Marina Kaljurand.
“We just decided to build a tunnel,” he told the minister.
“Who exactly?” the minister asked. The two had never met before.
“Me and my friends. They are sitting at a table over there.”
Kaljurand confirmed Vesterbacka’s telling of their first conversation to BuzzFeed News. “I looked at him quite skeptically, as an enthusiastic and very naive Finn. But when he introduced his background, he started to sound more believable,” Kaljurand said.
Her first impression was a solid one: Vesterbacka was naive. After pledging to build the project in five years, he realized that the 35.5-mile-long Gotthard tunnel, running through the Alps in Switzerland, took 20 years to complete. It’s now the world’s largest traffic tunnel, having finally opened in 2016.
Now, 18 months later, he says he doesn’t need to be an expert to build the tunnel — there are other people for that.
“Building a tunnel is different than building a game, but not that different,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It’s about making things happen, bringing the right people together.”
Some people have still remained skeptical about his ability to deliver. “If they choose to underestimate my ability to make stuff happen, it is their problem,” Vesterbacka said.
He’s already pulled together two engineering companies with experience in building massive tunnels, including a 38-mile-long wastewater tunnel in Mexico and a spent nuclear fuel repository under construction in Finland. They’ve already started preliminary planning for what, when finished, will actually be a pair of twin parallel tunnels, but are waiting for funding to be officially lined up before beginning construction.
Markku Oksanen, the president of Pöyry’s Northern European unit, told BuzzFeed News that the technology that would be used to build the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel would be the same that is currently used in Mexico. “Technically it is nothing very special, it is doable,” Timo Saanio, AINS Group’s vice president responsible for rock and environment engineering, said in a Skype interview.
Vesterbacka says 70% of the money everyone is waiting on will come from China — but he’s yet to disclose precisely who in China would be providing the money. (In an interview with the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in September, Vesterbacka said that he learned Mandarin as part of the process because “if you are going to ask them for 15 billion euros, it would be polite to do it in their own language.”) The rest would come from Scandinavian bank–run public pension funds.
Those following Vesterbacka’s efforts remain cautiously optimistic by what they’re seeing. Two of them who spoke to BuzzFeed News — former Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas and IT entrepreneur Taavi Kotka — know Vesterbacka personally and are familiar with the tunnel project. Neither of them doubted that he can deliver the money to fund the project, pointing to Vesterbacka’s track record in business and his bimonthly visits to China over the last six years. “While I think he has a good chance to deliver the money, I am afraid he is too optimistic about the time it will take to get all the necessary environmental permits,” Rõivas, currently a member of parliament. (Neither Kotka nor Rõivas stand to profit from Vesterbacka’s project.)
Vesterbacka says that, according to a study he ordered from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) the project would pay for itself in 37 years. PwC confirmed that they had conducted the study, noting that “37 years is mentioned in the report — even though there are certain assumptions behind this figure.” A PwC spokeswoman for the company said that, as the report is confidential, PwC could not comment on it further publicly.
“Make a detailed plan, announce the Chinese partners and secure the funding, get the permits, start the drilling. That’s pretty much it,” Vesterbacka said, counting the next steps — all of which sound rather daunting from an outside perspective.
But it’s the permits and other legal issues that are proving hardest to tackle. The European Union is currently conducting a preliminary study about the feasibility of building the tunnel, with initial results due next month.Vesterbacka acknowledged that his proposed timeline is aggressive — he wants to start drilling later this year — but he believes the environmental permits can be fast-tracked.
In that vein, he says he regularly meets politicians from both countries to keep them updated about the project and win their political support. He says that he last briefed Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä in the beginning of December, during an event celebrating 100 years of Finnish independence. The prime ministers of the two countries, meeting in Paris at a climate summit in December, agreed, among other things, to set up a meeting regarding the tunnel in February, after the EU’s study is completed. (When reached by BuzzFeed News, the prime minister’s office did not confirm or deny that the meeting between Vesterbacka and Sipilä took place.)
Vesterbacka argues that the tunnel would not be just about connecting two cities, but creating one large metropolitan area. When completed, the travel time for the 10 million people to travel between the two cities annually will drop from the current two hours on a ferry to 20 minutes on a high-speed train — the time it takes for an express train from Harlem to reach downtown Manhattan. In his telling, that would make the region — the “FinEst Bay Area,” as he branded it — the new heart of Europe and eventually of Eurasia.
A Nordic Silicon Valley, only “without its huge housing problems,” is Vesterbacka’s true goal, and the tunnel is just one piece of the puzzle. He also sees building housing for 50,000 people all along the tunnel’s stops, including on the artificial island. He also wants to bring in 150,000 foreign students to Finland and 30,000 to Estonia, all in the name of making the region grow quicker and be more competitive than China.
The tunnel goes beyond business, Vesterbacka believes. “It is important for Europe as well. France, Germany, and the UK are totally incapable of doing anything. It is very important for the Nordic countries to step up and show the leadership,” he said.
A good date to open the connection would be Dec. 24, 2024, Vesterbacka said, adding that although it is a bit later than he'd like. “With all permits, maybe that’s realistic. If we can do it faster, great. If not, then Christmas of 2024 is fine.”
When asked which direction the first train to pass through the tunnel will be heading, he paused to consider the question. “We will have two tunnels, so probably we will have one train going from each end at the same time.”