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The second bridge on the Danube will soon be open but it will hardly solve even a small part of the economic problems of the region

Source: “Capital daily

Vidin is in the far corner of the map. For years it has also been in the far corner of the Bulgarian economy and at the bottom of all statistical charts for– unemployment, birth rates, investments…Mathematically, Vidin is the closest point of Bulgaria to Central and Western Europe but in reality the town is difficult to reach. Even the second bridge over the River Danube will not bring a major change; this is what the local community expects having in mind the condition of the road infrastructure in recent years. More than a century ago, the strategic location of the town was preferred for the construction of a bridge to Romania, and some 104 years later, on 14 June 2013, the bridge was be finally opened.

The road to the bridge

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If you think that it is too long a period to build a bridge, well, people say that good things usually take time ( you can read more about the story in the caption). The Vidin-Calafat bridge runs the risk of remaining just a beautiful structure (as becomes a bridge) with no big role in the transport framework of Bulgaria, of the region or of the town of Vidin. The journey from Sofia to Vidin in a fast car, with all speed limits observed, takes 4 hours. The way back will take slightly more than 3 hours if, luckily, there is no heavy traffic. E79 road is regularly repaired and kept in good condition according to Bulgarian standards. However, it was designed many years ago and nowadays has no capacity for heavy traffic. At certain points, it is almost impossible for long vehicles or trucks to pass even in good weather conditions, while driving through Vratsa resembles slaloming in an attempt to avoid the numerous pot-holes.

 “The road condition is a great pain – whenever a freighting company hear they must come to Vidin, the prices always go up”, Ivaylo Todorov from the local building company “Izostroy” comments. Even though the road from Sofia is only 200km., the turns and the narrow sections considerably cut down the speed and the mileage, Todorov adds. According to him, it takes a truck loaded with building materials about 4 hours and a half to come from Sofia to Vidin. The hardest sections are after one leaves “Hemus” highway near Mezdra and in the last kilometers to Vidin – just after the exit for Belogradchik – the entire road is in sharp turns, coming one after the other, and one must pass through some small villages where it is impossible to drive with more than 50km/h, except if one decides to break the traffic rules. To cap it all, some sections of the village roads are paved and the paving seems to have been laid during Communist times.

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The good section of E79 is at the entrance to Vidin – a brand new overpass and a broad road lead directly to the bridge. A couple of days before the official bridge opening, it could be reached only through the old road because of the pre-opening tests and preparation works. Even though the bridge was officially still closed, no one stopped us from walking around, and the workers, obiously used to seeing photographers and journalists, kept on working without paying any attention to us.

 “We’ve been trying to find some solution for the road Vidin-Vratsa for several years now, and I know designer has already been appointed”, said Eng. Tsvetan Asenov, who used to be the governor of Vidin until a few days ago. However, the project concerns only the section closest to Vidin – there is one lot from Vidin to Dimovo, and the other one is from Dimovo to Ruzhintsi. The funding for this road should come during the second EC funding period – even though it has been among the priorities of the operational programme “Transport”, it has not been approved yet. According to the program, the first-rate road of 20.5km will cost 32 million euro, 6.4 million of which will be funded by the national budget; the rest will come from the Cohesion Fund.

 Hope dies last

If you ask the locals, they will tell you that their hopes for making the economy work because of the bridge have almost faded. Probably, people have already been waiting too much and have been listening too long about strategies, plans and promises as to how the road link with Romania will decrease unemployment and will perk up the economy (the last news of this kind came from the Bulgarian Socialist Party concerning passing of a special act and establishing an Agency for the Development of Northwestern Bulgaria). Two years ago, at the beginning of 2011, some local construction companies complained that they could no longer go on working on the road construction; because even the ordinary builders were Spanish (the contractor company to build the bridge was from Spain). This is how I met Ivaylo Todorov from “Izostroy” – at noon in the river park, he was complaining about the crisis and lack of orders. For the two days we spent in Vidin, we could hardly see him as he was always busy travelling to building sites. On the phone, he told us how he had managed to stir his business by sacking his employees and doing their job himself.

Todorov said there was some stir in town when the Spanish workers were there, but they had also left. During our stay, we heard some German speech around which the locals explained with the tourists from the cruise ships passing for a day or two through Vidin. Yet, there is no big tourist flow in the town even though there are enough places worth seeing for at least 2 days. We couldn’t find any tourist places working after 17:00, and for many of them there was no information or sign boards.

From economic perspective, the town should become more attractive not only with its tourism but also with good transport. Facts are sadly different, however. The rest of Bulgaria could only be reached on narrow and bumpy roads. Tsvetan Asenov says that he has greater expectations for the bridge opening than many others in town. His optimism comes from the meetings with investors and the offers made to them by the municipal authorities in recent years. Asenov mentioned Italian, Israeli and German companies that wish to come to the town and would probably do that as the bridge would provide road and railway transport, besides, the river and the port are also an advantage. According to the ex-governor, there is an Italian company interested in working there. The company produces elements from old automobile tires that can substitute the metal elements; a representative of the company is expected to come to town in a month. The regional government has had conversations with another Italian company interested in vegetable growing in the region.

Obstacles and plans

The infrastructure is definitely one of the greatest obstacles facing investors”, Asenov admits. He gives some examples of possible obstacles facing a foreigner who would eventually want to come to Vidin and see the situation – first, the arrival at Sofia airport, then renting a car because bus or railway transport is out of the question, and finally driving on a narrow road. In this way, these are at least 2 days lost only in travelling, not to mention the bureaucratic obstacles if someone decides to invest in the region. Here is an example – the territorial directorate for Northwestern Bulgaria is the National Revenue Agency – Veliko Tarnovo because the agency in Montana was closed in 2010. Despite the complaints in the three municipalities, up till now, no solution to this problem has been found.

In the next years, the municipal authority plans to transform Vidin into a logistics center and even to restore the local airport as a transport one. The airport was opened in 1973 but hasn’t been working for years. “After the opening of Danube bridge 2, we are planning a multimodal center where the freights from Central Europe could arrive at the cheapest. It will be more profitable in Vidin than in Italy or Greece, Asenov comments.

The companies from the town are not so optimistic. Some even suffered from the building of the new bridge. Last year, the furniture company “Elit – U – Julian Mishev” sued the municipality for 464,000 levs as the building of the new road to the bridge closed the access to his factory and shop. After following some rough roads, we finally found the owner Julian Mishev. We were close to the Roma residential area “New road”. To my surprise, Julian was all alone in his workshop. He told me that he was constantly working but his employees were on call only when there were orders. From the beginning of the year, only 10-15 people came to his shop, Mishev said and added that his business was dying.

It’s hard for him to tell whether this is due to the bridge construction or the crisis in general. The fact is that in his best years – 2006-2008, he had 35 employees, the canteen at the workshops was open and his monthly turnover exceeded 80-100.000 levs. “Now we can’t reach such a turnover for several years”, Mishev says. He enumerates a number of reasons for the heavy situation of the companies in his business sector – lack of resources, the terminated construction, and competition to some extent. However, competition is getting weaker and weaker, Mishev quotes data from the Chamber of Furniture according to which for the last years there hasn’t been a company not decreasing its personnel or having its turnover decreased in half against the times before the crisis, without taking into consideration all the companies gone bankrupt.

Connections to nowhere

His hopes are that Danube Bridge 2 might make a difference both in the town and in the region, though some transportation companies say that they do not intend to use the new bridge because of the bad roads leading to it. We did not have time to discuss Romania, but it is commonly thought that the roads there are almost as bad as the Bulgarian ones. There is a road – some people who travelled there recently said – but the only good section is the access road built together with the bridge. The roads that come after that are in the typical Balkan condition just the same as in Bulgaria.

There is one more thing to it – the bridge has a railroad, but although it is convenient for travels to the near parts of Serbia, still, there is the problem with the lack of border check point on the Western side, the nearest one being at Kalotina.

Initially, the railroad from Sofia to Vidin was intended to be a speed railroad with 160 km/h and its price was estimated in billions. Today, this railroad is intended to be designed as a goods transportation railroad, which means that the maximum speed that might be reached is 110 km/h. Its design has not started yet. Some time ago, the Transport Ministry commented that what could be achieved in the programme period to follow was for the railroad to reach Mezdra despite all efforts and funds invested.

There is a project for a new ring road in Vratsa, part of E79 road, that has been approved. Its reconstruction is to be finished by the end of the following year at the cost of 28.56 million. After its completion, traffic will not enter Vratsa, thus saving time and nerves on the part of the drivers.

To recapitulate – there are projects; there are hopes too, though they must have been higher years ago. Until the transport connections become reality, Danube bridge 2 risks remaining just an attraction that is likely to be used less than the bridge near Ruse or the Oriahovo ferry boat line. As for long-term planning, the region will always be the place of two borders and a big river, not using even half of its potential.

More than a century old history

The city hall of Vidin made a decision for the construction of a bridge near Calafat in….1909. Romania also took the idea to heart, but for decades on, it remained unfulfilled. In 1992, the South African company Koslar proposed to invest in the bridge construction – that is what the Chamber of Construction edition “Builder” says. However, the government turned down the offer, trying to find EU funding instead. After some investigations on site, a UK company recommended Lom as the most suitable location. The final choice, however, was Vidin again despite some minor objections on the part of Romania. The contractor assigned to carry out the project was the Spanish FCC Construccion.

 Written by Vesela Nikolaeva

Photos by Yulia Lazarova

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