Bjarni Returns as Prime Minister

Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson

Bjarni Benediktsson, current minister of foreign affairs and leader of the centre-right Independence Party, will become prime minister in the reshuffled coalition government following the departure of Katrín Jakobsdóttir from the office, RÚV reports.

Katrín announced last week that she would resign as prime minister and leader of the Left-Green Movement to campaign for the office of president, with presidential elections scheduled for June 1. This threw the future of her party’s coalition with the Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party into uncertainty. A parliamentary election is scheduled for September next year, but the opposition has called for a snap election in light of these developments.

Bjarni’s return following privatisation scandal

At a press conference in Harpa concert and conference hall today, Bjarni announced that he would become prime minister. Bjarni was previously prime minister during a short-lived coalition in 2017 and finance minister for most of the period from 2013 to 2023. He resigned as finance minister in October of last year after the Parliamentary Ombudsman found that his role in the privatisation process of Íslandsbanki bank, which had been nationalised after the 2008 banking collapse, had not confirmed to guidelines.

He became minister for foreign affairs instead, with fellow party member Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir becoming finance minister in his stead. Þórdís will now move back to the ministry for foreign affairs, where she served previously.

Embattled Svandís switches ministries

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, leader of the Progressive Party, will now become finance minister. Embattled Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir, who was set to face a motion of no confidence in Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, this week, will become minister of infrastructure. In January, the Parliamentary Ombudsman found that she had not acted in accordance with law when she temporarily banned whale hunting last summer.

Her fellow Left-Green Movement MP, Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, will take her place in the ministry of food, agriculture and fisheries.

The changes will be formalised at a meeting of the cabinet with President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson at 7 PM tonight.

Emotions Run High at Grindavík Residents Meeting

Grindavík volcanic eruption January 2024

Displaced residents of Grindavík gathered at Laugardalshöll sports venue in Reykjavík yesterday to discuss the town’s future and demand action from authorities. The meeting was also attended by government ministers, scientists and public officials, Heimildin reports.

The town was evacuated Sunday as an eruption was starting in the vicinity. Yesterday morning, lava flow from both fissures north of Grindavík had ceased. The town of 3,800 inhabitants has sustained considerable damage, however, with three houses destroyed by lava and treacherous crevasses forming across the area. Grindavík is without electricity, hot water, and cold water, and lava has reportedly poured over water piping to the area.

Hoped her house would burn down

During the meeting, Bryndís Gunnlaugsdóttir, a Grindavík resident, pointed out the fact that those whose houses were destroyed by lava would get immediate compensation from the Natural catastrophe insurance of Iceland, a public institution. The rest of the residents, whose houses remain intact on the streets of an uninhabitable town, get nothing despite being displaced.

She said it was the worst day of her life when the eruption ended and she saw her house hadn’t burned down. “If my house had burned down, I would have gained financial independence. I would be able to start a new home and this noose around my neck would be gone,” she said and received a standing ovation from attendees.

Decades of activity possible

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, and Minister of Finance Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir all addressed the crowd. They said that government needed time to work out how to best assist the residents in their time of need. Some in attendance demanded that the government purchase all town properties to allow people to start over.

Kristín Jónsdóttir from the Icelandic Meteorological Office told attendees that repeated eruptions could be expected from the Sundhnúkagígur fissures to the north of the town. Uncertainty remains about the volcanic activity and whether it will manifest in one long eruption or several smaller ones. However, looking at the history of the Reykjanes peninsula, we could be at the start of several years or decades of activity.

Helping Grindavík

There are numerous ways in which you can provide support for the people of Grindavík, even if you do not live in Iceland. The Icelandic Red Cross has set up a page with donation options for those wishing to lend support. This includes both one-time donations and repeat subscriptions.

Transport Plan: Single-Lane Bridges to Be Eliminated

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

At a press conference yesterday, the Minister of Infrastructure unveiled his new transport plan. The plan aims to eliminate single-lane bridges on the Ring Road within 15 years and includes plans to build a new Hvalfjörður tunnel, alongside nine other tunnels. More than ISK 900 billion ($6.5 billion / €6.1 billion) will be invested over the next fifteen years, RÚV reports.

New tunnels and the elimination of single-lane bridges

At a press conference held yesterday at the Nordica Hotel in Reykjavík, Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson unveiled the ministry’s transport plan for the years 2024 to 2038.

The plan includes a budget of over ISK 900 billion ($6.5 billion / €6.1 billion) for transport projects in the next fifteen years, with approximately ISK 260 billion ($1.9 billion / €1.7 billion) allocated for the next five years. Notable projects include the construction of a second Hvalfjörður tunnel (a road tunnel under the Hvalfjörður fjord in Iceland and a part of the Ring Road) and a tunnel under the Öxnadalsheiði mountain pass. Additionally, the plan aims to eliminate single-lane bridges on the Ring Road within fifteen years.

The transport plan also includes significant road projects such as doubling the Reykjanesbraut road – connecting Reykjavík to Keflavík International Airport – and widening the Suðurlandsvegur and Kjalarnesvegur roads with separated driving lanes. Around 80 kilometres of main roads will also be widened.

There are ten tunnels in the plan:

Fjarðarheiðar tunnel
Siglufjörður tunnel
A second Hvalfjörður tunnel
Tunnel between Ólafsfjörður and Dalvík
Tunnel between Ísafjörður and Súðavík
Broadening of the Breiðdals segment of the Vestfjords tunnel
Seyðisfjörður and Mjóifjörður tunnel
Miklidalur and Hálfdán
Klettháls
Öxnadalsheiði
(Four other tunnels are also under consideration: Reynisfjall, Lónsheiði, Hellisheiði eystri, Berufjarðar and Breiðdalsheiði tunnels.)

An alternate airport fee will also be introduced and a new terminal will be built at Reykjavík Airport. The transport agreement in the capital area will also be updated with funding for the preparation of Sundabraut continuing to be guaranteed.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2026 and be completed in 2031.

Increasing road safety

Sigurður Ingi was quoted in a press release on the government’s website stating that, above all, the focus of the transport plan was increased road safety:

“When I took over as Minister of Transport almost six years ago, the development of transport infrastructure was launched with subsidies towards roads, ports, and airports throughout the country. For the next several years, we were able to invest more in transport infrastructure annually than had previously been done.

Above all, our guiding light, and biggest project, is increasing safety on the roads. As in previous transport plans, the emphasis is on reducing the number of single-lane bridges and crossroads, shortening distances between places and, most importantly, separating opposing lanes on the busiest roads to and from the capital area. We have worked according to a clear safety plan for traffic, shipping, and aviation in cooperation with regulatory bodies and the business world.

Transport is the lifeblood of society and supports a strong economy throughout the country and provides a lot of strength to the settlements. The projects are diverse and range from protective pavement (i.e. bundið slitlag) on connecting roads to ambitious collaborative projects such as Ölfusárbrú and Sundabraut.”

New Parliamentary Bill to Restrict the Speed of Electric Scooters

The Minister of Infrastructure has proposed a bill to amend the Traffic Law. Among other things, the bill includes changes to the rules for electric scooters, Vísir reports.

Enormously popular over the past few years

Last week, the Minister of Infrastructure, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, proposed a bill to amend the Traffic Law (Umferðarlög, No. 77/2019), which, among other things, will alter the rules for electric scooters.

The popularity of electric scooters has increased enormously in recent years, and with growing popularity, there has been a slew of accidents – including one fatality. If the changes are implemented, scooters may no longer be driven faster than 25 kilometres per hour. Bicycles capable of exceeding that speed would also be banned from traffic.

The bill further stipulates that drivers of electric scooters would be allowed to drive on roads where the maximum speed does not exceed 30 kilometres per hour. Rules will also be set regarding the blood alcohol content of the electric-scooter operators, as well as an age limit; children under the age of thirteen will be prohibited from riding electric scooters, and children under the age of sixteen will be required to wear a helmet.

Hope to increase traffic safety

As noted in a press release from the government’s website: “The bill proposes changes based on the recommendations of a working group on small vehicles that were presented last year. Their aim is to increase the road safety of small vehicles without standing in the way of the further development of more diverse modes of transport.”

If the amendment is enshrined in law, a general ban on altering the speed settings of electric vehicles, light mopeds, and electric bicycles will also come into effect.

ISK 130 Million in Grants to Strengthen Rural Settlements

Útivera Ganga Náttúra Gengið frá Aðalvík að Hesteyri og til baka

The Minister of Infrastructure has allocated a total of ISK 130 million ($910,000 / €848,000) in grants to twelve projects in rural Iceland in accordance with the regional development plan. Emphasis is placed on strengthening areas suffering from chronic population decline, unemployment, and a lack of economic diversity.

12 projects organised by seven regional associations

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Infrastructure, has allocated grants in the amount of ISK 130 million ($910,000 / €848,000) to 12 projects organised by seven regional associations. The grants are intended to strengthen the country’s rural settlements and are allocated to specific projects in key areas in accordance with the regional development plan for the years 2022-2036. A total of 32 applications for grants, totalling over ISK 857 million ($6 million / €5.6 million), were received for the year 2023.

The aim of the grants is to connect individual plans within different regions of Iceland with the government’s regional development plan while also affording locals greater responsibility in the allocation of funds. Emphasis is placed on strengthening areas with chronic population decline, unemployment, and a lack of economic diversity.

Projects that receive funding must benefit individual regions, localities within the region, or the region as a whole. Population development, the composition of the economy, the level of employment, and average income were among the factors that were used as a basis for evaluating applications. A three-member selection committee reviewed the applications and made recommendations to the minister.

Value creation in sheep farming, Straumhvörf

The projects that received the highest funding are “value creation in sheep breeding areas,” which received the highest single grant from the Ministry of Infrastructure’s fund. The project incentivises innovation and value creation in sparsely populated areas that are heavily reliant on sheep farming. The funding – ISK 21.6 million ($151,000 / €141,000) – will go to the Federation of Municipalities in West Iceland, the Association of Local Authorities in the Westfjords (i.e. Fjórðungssamband Vestfirðinga), and the Federation of Municipalities in Northwest Iceland.

The second highest grant went to the Straumhvörf project, which is a collaboration between the Federation of Municipalities in East, Northwest, and West Iceland; Visit North and East Iceland (i.e. áfangastofa norður- og austurlands); Austurbrú; and the Marketing Office of North Iceland (i.e. Markaðsstofu Norðurlands). Straumhvörf is a project seeking to implement a design and product workshop for a new tourist circuit around East and North Iceland in connection with direct international flights to Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. The Federation of Municipalities in East Iceland will receive a grant of ISK 15.6 million ($110,000 / €102,000).

Work Group to Submit Report on Reykjanesbraut Closure

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson

A work group appointed by Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson to review the closure of Reykjanesbraut in December is expected to submit a draft plan to the Ministry of Infrastructure next week, Mbl.is reports. The closure of Reykjanesbraut led to numerous flight cancellations and delays.

Reykjanesbraut closure leads to flight cancellations, delays

Following heavy snow in the capital area during the days leading up to Christmas, Reykjanesbraut – the road leading to Keflavík Airport – became impassable. The closure led to numerous flight delays and cancellations, with many travellers expressing their criticism of the Icelandic authorities.

Speaking to Mbl.is in December, Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannson stated that the situation was unacceptable: “I have to say, right now, we have to get over this and ensure, as far as that’s possible, that Reykjanesbraut is not closed while the airport is open.”

Sigurður Ingi subsequently appointed a work group composed of representatives from the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, the National Police Commissioner, and the Suðurnes police chief. The work group was tasked with reviewing the events in December and drafting a plan on how best to deal with similar situations.

“We are working hard on the report in collaboration with these groups,” Hjördís Guðmundsdóttir, Director of Communications for the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, told Mbl.is this morning. The work group is expected to submit its report on Tuesday, January 10.

“We scrutinise everything we do, so it’s natural for us to scrutinise this,” she added.

Single-Lane Bridge Replaced with Double-Lane Bridge Near Kirkjubæjarklaustur

kirkjubæjarklaustur bridge iceland

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Infrastructure, took part in the official opening of the new bridge over Jökulsá on the south coast of Iceland on Friday, October 21.

With the appearance of the new bridge, there will no longer be any one-way bridges between Reykjavík and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a town on the south coast of Iceland. The improvement is a major one for the region, meaning that the drive east along the south coast will be all the more navigable.

Also present at the opening ceremony were Anton Kári Halldórsson, mayor of Rangárþing eystra, and Einar Freyr Elínarsn, mayor of Mýrdalshreppur municipality.

After the ceremony, minister Sigurður was the first to drive over the new bridge, inaugurating this latest addition to Iceland’s road system.

In his address at the ceremony, minister Sigurður outlined his ministry’s plans to get rid of single-lane bridges throughout the nation: “Today we move one step closer to that goal. Four years ago, 37 bridges on the Ring Road were single-lane, now there are 32, and there will be 31 when the new bridge opens today. And there is no let up in construction. I am hopeful that we will be able to reduce the number of them to 29 right before the end of the year, with new bridges openings on both Hverfisfljót and Núpsvötn later in the year. There are also three single-lane bridges that will be diverted around the Ring Road when traffic is allowed over the new bridge over the Hornafjörður River.”

According to information from the Road Administration, the new bridge is some 163 m [535 ft] long, with a total width of 10 m [33 ft]. The bridge it replaces was built in 1967, part of the construction of Iceland’s Ring Road.

Municipal Authorities Suggest Egilsstaðir for Development as Alternate Airport

Municipal authorities in the eastern district of Fljótsdalshérað want to strengthen the infrastructure of the Egilsstaðir airport due to the ongoing seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula, RÚV reports.

It’s possible that the current eruption in Meradalir and last year’s eruption in Geldingadalur herald the arrival of a long period of volcanic unrest on the Reykjanes peninsula, something that would put the Keflavík airport—and the single roadway leading to it—at significant risk. As such, many political leaders, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, agree about the importance of establishing an alternate airport somewhere else in the country.

Egilsstaðir is not the only town angling for airport development, however. Just last week, Halla Signý Kristjánsdóttir, an MP for the Progressive Party and a member of the transportation committee, suggested that an airport could be built in Mýrar in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland. Akureyri in North Iceland has also been put forth as an option.

Vilhjálmur Jónsson, one of the local government chairmen in Fljótsdalshérað, says Egillstaðir is well-suited for the project. “The conditions at Egilsstaðir are in some ways more suitable and I also think that if there are going to be these weekly disruptions that [it would be good to be able to] spread flights to other airports if there was a major incident.”

“The situation is not a new one,” Vilhjálmur concluded, “but these earthquakes on Reykjanes now will maybe finally push it.”

Transport Minister: Reykjavík Cannot Build Next to City Airport

skerjafjörður

The City of Reykjavík cannot start building a residential development beside the City Airport until another location for the airport has been established, Iceland’s Transport Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhansson has stated. Officials of Isavia, the company that operates the airport, have expressed concern that planned buildings near runways would create wind currents that would impact flight safety. City authorities had planned to begin construction of the new development this summer.

Agreement between city and state

In an interview taken at the City Airport this morning, Sigurður Ingi pointed to an agreement made between the City of Reykjavík and the state in November 2019. “As long as another option, equally good or better, has not been found nor constructed, then the agreement stipulates that this airport here, that we are standing on, must remain unchanged, both operationally and in terms of safety. And it would not, according to the analysis of Isavia and their consultants, if this construction in Skerjafjörður begins,” Sigurður Ingi stated. The development in question would involve not only building next to the airport, but on a section of the current airport lot.

1,200 apartments

The proposal for the residential development in Skerjafjörður was first approved in 2018 and is one of the areas targeted by the City of Reykjavík’s 2010-2030 municipal plan. City authorities have stated that the development “will not impair the current operations nor the utilisation of Reykjavík Airport.”

The location of the airport has been a hot topic for years: its supporters argue that moving it out of the city centre would negatively impact countryside residents and complicate emergency flights to the National Hospital, while its detractors argue that relocating the airport would free up much-needed space for housing in the city centre. A decision has in fact been made to move the City Airport, but a suitable alternate location is yet to be found.

Calls on Icelandic Authorities to Tackle Hate Speech

keyboard computer typing

If hate speech has no consequences for the individuals who spout it in Iceland, that could serve as a certain recognition that it is acceptable, according to Doctor of Anthropology and Assistant Professor of Police Science Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir. Eyrún told RÚV it is up to Icelandic authorities to take concrete measures against hate speech.

Icelandic media outlet Kjarninn withdrew an interview with deputy MP Lenya Rún Taha Karim from online circulation yesterday after the article received a flood of personal attacks against Lenya, including racism and hate speech, on social media. In the interview, Lenya Rún describes the disrespect and racism she has had to endure in Iceland as a person of foreign origin in the public sphere.

“The fact that people appear under their own name [on social media] and express themselves in this way, that can perhaps be traced to the fact that there have in fact been few consequences for people in Iceland who have [used hate speech],” Eyrún explains. “Perhaps a precedent has even been set for hate speech, and if it is left undisturbed, then it creates a certain recognition that it is maybe just OK.”

Authorities silent

“Nothing has been heard from the authorities, they haven’t condemned this type of hatred that is put forth against certain members of society, and that’s a shame,” Eyrún observes. “In many countries, authorities have laid down plans, invested money, created hate crime units within the police and other such things, as a strong emphasis is placed on tackling [hate speech].” Eyrún previously headed such a unit within the Capital Area Police Department, but it has since been dismantled.

The authorities themselves have been embroiled in a controversy regarding a racist remark made by Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson at a conference last month. Sigurður Ingi has been accused of violating the Parliamentary Code of Ethics by making the comment. Besides publishing an apology on his Facebook page, the minister has refused to discuss the incident.

“Hate speech is of the nature that the more well-known and powerful the people that use it are, the worse its effect is in society,” Eyrún says. It can cause others to take up such language, “because they think that if the nation’s officials can allow themselves to talk this way then it’s OK.”