The fierce opposition against the road extension project ‘Ennsnahe Trasse’, located in the province of Styria, is an example of successful grassroots resistance against environmentally controversial infrastructure projects in Austria. Already in 1978, intentions to construct an expressway (S8) in the beautiful Ennstal failed due to the rise of the Austrian environmental movement [1;2]. Plans to extend the road network in the area through the Ennsnahe Trasse returned during the 1990s. Located in a conservation area (Landschaftsschutzgebiet) of high cultural and ecological value, the project caused however strong opposition from grassroots groups [3;4].
Those in favour argued the project would significantly help to reduce traffic volume in close-by towns. They saw it as an important initiative to mitigate accidents, decrease levels of noise, and to enhance the well-being of neighbours . While the traffic problem was also acknowledged by those against the project, the opponents argued instead for the enhancement of the existing road infrastructure, rather than to construct an entirely new expressway within a conservation area. In their opinion, the latter would attract only more traffic. Their proposals to solve the issue focused on the extension of the existing B146 national road, as well as on local solutions for transited towns, such as the construction of underground tunnels [3;4;5]. Public consultations conducted in January 1990 showed that about 5,000 Ennstal citizens were against the project, while only 1,000 were in favour. The citizens’ initiative NETT (Nein zur Ennsnahen TransitTrasse) was established, with about 3,800 members [3;5].
From the beginning, the project was accompanied by numerous disputes between supporters and opponents and the planning and construction work had to be suspended several times. Large demonstrations, blockades and protest marches were common at that time and protest slogans and songs such as “Wenn wir uns trauen, werden sie nicht bauen” (with enough courage, the project will be stopped) soon formed part of the repertoire of contention. But not only those against the project protested; also, the supporters fiercely defended the road and voiced their anger with the opponents. One episode particularly marked the conflict. Supporters set up a pillory to expose the opponents in it via photographs. Some say the dispute divided the whole valley, families and friends [1;2].
A first victory for the opponents was achieved in 1992. The project was stopped because it lacked a permission related to water laws. However, one year later, the project was back on the agenda due to the support of former minister of traffic and economic affairs Wolfgang Schüssel. On March 30, 1993, the ground-breaking ceremony for the first part of the Ennsnahe Trasse was held at Wanne Stainach, which led to the escalation of the conflict. Protesters occupied the construction area and clashed against security staff of the construction company. Subsequently, protesters faced lawsuits for recovery of damages; however, they were later declared as not guilty because the construction start had been illegal [1;2].
On September 5, 1993, traffic minister Schüssel declared to conduct another public consultation to determine the future of the project. In this consultation, the majority of citizens of several affected municipalities, such as Stainach, Liezen and others, voted in favour of the infrastructure project. Nevertheless, the opponents continued to protest the road project on legal grounds, arguing it would be impossible to vote over a project that lacks legal approvement. In a press-conference in January 1994, NETT Chairman Rolf Seiser insisted the project would never be authorized due to concerns related to national and provincial water laws. When Austria joined the European Union in 1995, the road project became also contradictory to relevant EU norms, i.e. the Flora-Fauna-Habitat (FFH) Directive, the Wild Birds Directive, and the Natura 2000 framework .
In the following years, the dispute reached gradually higher administrative levels and involved more and more concerns. It was coined by contradictory statements, legal decisions and permission regarding water laws, the need to expropriate large areas of land to construct not only the highway but to adapt large surrounding areas for risks of flooding, the associated costs of expropriations, legal concerns whether this is possible or not, and so on. For instance, while the constitutional office of the provincial government of Styria endorsed the necessary expropriations, green party members of the national council submitted charges against the decision at the public prosecutor’s office in 1994. In 1995, Styria’s nature conservation authority announced a negative decision that soon was contested by a lawsuit, lodged by the traffic office of the Republic of Austria at the Higher Administrative Court .
Events turned when the European Union (EU) launched an infringement action against Austria on concerns over bird conservation on December 19, 1996, which triggered further examination of the project regarding environmental issues. Conservation organizations Bird Life and Vogelwarte were key players behind the infringement procedure. Environmentalists had emphasized the project would threaten the natural habitat of the corncrake (crex crex) - an endangered species that appears on the IUCN's latest red list. On April 22, 1999, the infringement procedure was stopped and while some interpreted this as a sign to move forward with the project, others made clear the action only was stopped because Styria assured to only develop the project in strict compliance with EU law. On July 7, 2000, the project was formally cancelled by Minister of Infrastructure Michael Schmid, arguing that the relocation of the corncrake would be too expensive and without any guarantee for success .