Voters have endorsed a plan to build an additional road tunnel through the central Swiss Alps, one of Europe’s main north-south links for cars, buses and trucks.
Final results show a 57% majority of voters coming out in favour.
A broad coalition of environmental groups and mainly leftwing parties challenged a decision by parliament last year for a second 17km tube through the Gotthard in the heart of Switzerland.
Transport Minister Doris Leuthard said the broad support by voters from around the country was a clear sign of solidarity with regions directly affected by the major building project.
“Voters want a good and safe road link with Ticino,” she told a news conference.
Leuthard added that the government would continue its policy of putting transalpine goods traffic onto rail.
She dismissed concerns about a gradual opening of additional traffic lanes in the two tunnels, saying such a move would require another nationwide vote.
The law foresees that the tunnels, to open in 2030 at the earliest, will only be used for one-directional traffic, limited to one lane only.
Jon Pult, president of the Alpine initiative group leading the No campaign, said efforts to curb road traffic would continue, despite the disappointing result in Sunday’s nationwide vote.
“We will remind the government of its pledge,” Pult said.
He added that the government must ensure that heavy-weight trucks are put onto rail in line with a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1994.
Regula Rytz, president of the Green Party, said she wants guarantees from the government to resist pressure to allow two-lane traffic in both tunnels.
Political scientist Claude Longchamp of the GfS Bern research and polling institute said Sunday’s result showed that it has become increasingly difficult to win majorities for environmental issues.
Voter turnout was 63%, the highest in more than 20 years. Participation usually hovers around the 40% mark. Heavy last-minute campaigning, especially on the issue of deportation of foreign criminals, is believed to have encouraged eligible voters to exercise their right.
Cities and towns such as Bern, Biel and Lausanne saw queues of people lining up on Sunday to make their votes count before the polls closed.
The last initiative to see high numbers of citizens casting ballots was the vote on curbing immigration two years ago, when turnout was 55.8%.
Just over 17% of 133,500 citizens, including registered Swiss abroad eligible to take part in an ongoing trial, used e-voting, according to the Federal Chancellery.
The government said the existing tunnel needs renovation after more than 35 years. A second parallel arm would absorb the more than 17,000 vehicles on average passing the throughfare every day.
The government and parliament argued the second tunnel – costing about CHF2.8 billion ($2.8 billion) - helps ensure road safety and provides continuous access to a north-south road link all year round both for economic and political reasons.
Nearly 40 people have died in road accidents in the 17km tunnel since 1980, including 11 victims of a fire in 2001.
There were also concerns that the southern canton Ticino – neighbouring Italy’s Lombardy and Piedmont regions - would be cut off from the rest of Switzerland if the existing tunnel closes for renovation without an equivalent alternative offer.
Opponents have warned the second tunnel would attract more traffic and increase pressure from the European Union to allow the use of a second lane in both tunnel.
They also argue the proposed solution was too expensive and came too early as Switzerland will open the world’s longest rail tunnel through the Gotthard in June. Its construction came at costs of about CHF12 billion.
A final opinion poll carried out at the beginning of February saw opponents of a second tunnel winning ground.
Given the intense campaigning over several months and dwindling support by leading media, the government risked a defeat similar to the 1994 vote, when a coalition of environmentalists and leftwing parties won an unexpected victory.
Their proposal to cap transalpine road traffic and to promote a plan to put long-haul trucks onto rail went down in modern Swiss history as a major ballot box upset.
Critics have since accused the government and parliament of failing to implement the initiative, as targets to reduce the number of trucks crossing the Alps of trucks were missed and deadlines extended.
But voters remained adamant and also rejected a proposal in 2004 to build a second Gotthard road tunnel.
Results vote February 28, 2016
Hardline proposal deportation of criminal foreigners:
41.1% Yes 58.9% No
Second Gotthard road tunnel:
57% Yes 43% No
Tax breaks for married couples:
49.2% Yes 50.8% No
Ban on food speculation:
40.1% Yes 59.9% No