ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkey is seeking to "build the future of Istanbul" with a brace of ambitious projects including a third bridge spanning the Bosphorus Strait linking Europe and Asia, Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan told Agence France-Presse.
The bridge - once hailed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "star project" and due to open on Friday (Aug 26) - is only one of the grandiose projects aimed at modernising the face of Istanbul and transforming the city of 16 million people.
A former mayor of Istanbul, Mr Erdogan has often boasted of pet mega projects under his rule that also include a new airport and even a Panama-style canal to relieve pressure from the Bosphorus.
"Everyone should know that we are building the future of Istanbul and in the same way we protect its history," Mr Arslan told AFP ahead of the opening of the bridge, named after sixteenth century Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim.
The bridge includes an eight-lane road and twin railway tracks to create a new highway linking Asia and Europe in the north of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.
"It is another record that we had completed it within 27 months," Mr Arslan said.
The bridge aims to ease traffic problems on the two existing bridges over the Bosphorus and relieve pressure on the vessel-clogged waterway, the minister said.
"The bridge will take about 30 per cent of Istanbul's burden, the traffic pressure on the other two bridges will be eased," he added.
There are already two other bridges across the Bosphorus: the First Bosphorus Bridge, which opened in 1973, and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which was completed in 1988.
Critics argue that Mr Erdogan's self-styled "crazy projects" are excessive and damaging to the environment.
Up to four million trees were chopped during the construction of the third bridge alone, environmentalists have claimed. But Arslan however said about 382,000 trees had been relocated.
"In return for those 382,000 trees we have planted 2.5 million. That's not all," he said. "We will plant a total of 5.1 million trees - 15 times as many as we relocated."
In order to preserve nature, he noted, Turkey has also built "ecological bridges" to facilitate the crossing of wild animals on both sides of the Bosphorus.
The government's other grandiose projects for the city include the Eurasia tunnel - a road passage underneath the Bosphorus - expected to be inaugurated on December 20, the minister said.
This will complement the undersea Marmaray railway tunnel opened in 2013 that was the first such successful project beneath the Bosphorus in the history of the city.
Potentially the most significant development for visitors to Istanbul will be a gargantuan third airport meant to rival mega-hubs like Dubai.
Even though construction only began just over a year ago, Mr Arslan said it was already 35 percent finished.
"In the first quarter of 2018 we will open the first phase of the airport that will serve 90 million passengers and in next stage that will increase to 200 million," Mr Arslan said.
The minister noted that the third airport and third bridge are complementary because the bridge and connected highways are also linked to Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side of the city.
The government is currently working on a separate project to build "Kanal Istanbul", an artificial strait to bypass the Bosphorus to ease the boat traffic in the narrow waterway.