Danube Bridge 2 between Bulgaria and Romania: The Bridge of Shame!
"Ready, More Ready, Most Ready"!
At the end of last week, a piece of "news" was reported on the sly by Bulgarian media: Bulgarian Transport Minister Ivaylo Moskovski told the Members of Parliament in Sofia that the so called "Danube Bridge 2", which should become the second bridge between Bulgaria and Romania on the Danube, linking Vidin and Calafat, should be "completely ready" and "functional" in March 2013.
Keeping in mind that this bridge should have been built several decades ago, and that the last couple of years the Bulgarian society as well as the Romanian society have been victimized through regular announcements about how "ready" Danube Bridge 2 is, the fact that there is a new "deadline" for its "readiness" has come as no surprise.
Thus, the new deadline's announcement is just like a warm cup of tea drunk in a cold Sunday afternoon in a small provincial town somewhere in the EU's poorest region (i.e. Northwestern Bulgaria) – it warms you up expectedly and for a while but it does nothing to change the material and spiritual desolation all around you.
Bulgaria and Romania's Danube Bridge 2 will most likely be "fully-completely-functionally-operational" some day, or something like that. That is, sometime – whether in 2013 or in 2313 – the governments of Bulgaria and Romania and the managers of Spanish construction firm FCC will probably wake up, and decided that they are fed up, and will just complete that poor bridge.
However, what matters more is that the construction of what will be only the second bridge on the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania can make a perfect case study about what NOT to do when it comes to international infrastructure development and construction.
To back up my claim, I will resort to some history – sometimes described as the teacher of nations – a teacher whose students, at least those in classrooms along the Lower Danube – apparently haven't learned anything.
From Rome to Brussels
Being masochistically true to the inertia in the collapse of their statehood and civil spirit in the post-communist period, the good people of Bulgaria and Romania would have probably never initiated the construction of a new Danube bridge if in the late 1990s NATO hadn't decided to bomb Serbia (or "mini-Yugoslavia") under Slobodan Milosevic because of the crisis in Kosovo. Then all of a sudden, the route from Istanbul and Thessaloniki via Sofia, Vidin and Western Romania to Hungary became badly needed for the Alliance.
Without this powerful outside factor, the state leaders and societies of Bulgaria and Romania would have hardly translated their countries' urgent need for mutual economic integration into some relatively sensible infrastructure projects. (Actually, it's still uncertain how much they comprehend this need – even after joining the EU together in 2007, and even after the effects of the global economic crisis in 2008...)
But even after NATO's decision in favor of a Danube bridge at Vidin-Calafat, the bureaucratic impotence of Sofia and Bucharest found a new opportunity to shine by displaying colossal, shameful inefficiency, which might have been caused by incompetence or corruption, or both.
Because after the NATO-Serbia war subsided in 1999-2000, the civil servants in Bulgaria and Romania could sigh in relief that they wouldn't be pressured to actually get down to work and create something useful. So they sighed in relief, a sigh that apparently lasted for several years because eventually a contract with a selected builder of Danube Bridge 2 – the Spanish company FCC – was signed only in 2007. That is the contract that has been bearing fruit to date. Or is yet to do so.
Another interestingly shameful fact is that when / if it gets built, Danube Bridge 2 will be only the third bridge in the past 2000 years, or, in fact, in the entire human history, in the Danube section that makes up today's border between Bulgaria and Romania.
The first permanent bridge in the Bulgarian-Romanian section of the Danube River was constructed as early as the 4th century AD during the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The so called Constantine's Bridge on the Danube was 2.5 km long, 6 meters wide, and was the largest river bridge in ancient times. According to historical sources, it existed from 328 AD till ca. 355 AD when it was destroyed by a barbarian invasion.
The "next" bridge on the Lower Danube, in the Bulgarian-Romanian section of the river, second and last for the time being, today's Ruse-Giurgiu Bridge, or Danube Bridge, was built only in 1954, about 1 500 years later. It was built at the initiative of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin for the purpose of aiding Soviet military and economic control over the Warsaw Pact member states in the Eastern Bloc.
And that's it. All the way until the time of misguided leadership efforts of other "great global leaders" such as Ivan Kostov, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Sergey Stanishev, and Boyko Borisov...
Having just two bridges in the past 2000 years, one of them in the time of the Roman Empire, destroyed in ancient times, the other one built by Stalin at the time of the Warsaw Pact, in a 500-km section of the second largest river in Europe, in such a central geographic region, with the project for a third bridge being initiated by NATO – this whole story is an epitome of absurdity, an extremely shameful and disgraceful in itself.
Impotent States on the Lower Danube
The next shameful fact in line is that even when a decision was made to build a new bridge on the Danube – this time to serve not the Warsaw Pact but NATO – a decision that was in fact in favor of the people of Bulgaria and Romania – both Balkan states needed a decade and a half in order to execute it even though the EU has been generously funding the project.
Let me just mention that EU funding was allocated under the PRE-accession program ISPA... Years went by, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, their first seven-year period is now over, and the bridge isn't "completely completed" yet.
Why was a contract with a constructor signed only in 2007 – only God and some corrupt and incompetent civil servants know. I suspect that the same applies to the answers of some other questions: Why was the respective builder selected as it gave the lowest price back at the time of the tender, and then demanded more money numerous times? Why did that builder need half a decade to complete the poor bridge? Why has this project become considerably more costly than planned – at the expense of our mother-in-laws' grandkids?
Inclement expropriation procedures, inclement changes of the construction columns, inclement weather...
Certainly, such an engineering, infrastructure, and geopolitical project is no simple thing but it does pale in comparison to a number of construction projects executed with striking efficiency in many other countries classified in Bulgarian textbooks as "developing", "less developed", or "former Third World".
After all, under the January 2007 contract, Danube Bridge 2 between Bulgaria and Romania was supposed to be completed in March 2010. When this deadline approached, regular announcements started to be made that it was going to be ready next week, next month, next light year... and that money was needed, more money, of course...
There was even a moment in which the project for the Vidin-Calafat Bridge was about to collapse completely, and the bridge might not have been built at all because the deadline for absorbing the money of the nice Western European tax payers under the ISPA program expired in 2010. Back then only the mercy of Brussels allowed an extension of the funding deadline, which in turn allowed Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to appropriate the title of "savior" of the Bulgarian-Romanian bridge because his government supposedly managed to win the extension.
Money, More Money
For the entire story of the Vidin-Calafat bridge construction to become more shameful, in January 2012, the Bulgarian MPs voted unanimously to approve an increase of the total cost of the Bulgarian share of the Danube Bridge 2 funding by BGN 50 M.
The proposal for the price increase was submitted by Transport Minister Ivaylo Moskovski. Even though the initial price was supposed to be EUR 173 M, it grew considerably.
Back then, PM Boyko Borisov argued in favor of the proposal by declaring that the main reason the higher cost needs to be approved is the need to use steel-concrete columns, instead of concrete columns, for the construction because of the geophysical conditions of the region, and the new columns in question were more expensive.
It seems very weird that the engineers who designed the bridge didn't think of that earlier so the Bulgarian taxpayer had to put in additional funding for new columns 5 years after the signing of the contract with FCC, and two years after the bridge was actually supposed to be operational. It's also weird that the builder is entitled to change the construction parameters in the course of its work, and to demand, and receive more money for that.
Back then Borisov said that unless additional funding is provided, the bridge most likely won't be completed by the end of 2012, and thus Bulgaria would lose the ISPA funding which covers about one-third of the entire cost of the project.
The additional funding of BGN 50 M came mostly from a new loan of BGN 42 M from the European Investment Bank under a memorandum signed earlier for providing a credit for the bridge project.
Back them former Transport Minister in the Stanishev Cabinet, Petar Mutafchiev, also defended the additional costs in order to complete the bridge on time. Of course he would, as much of the Vidin-Calafat mess was created during his term in office.
Was It Really Worth It?...
On top of all that there is another extremely important interestingly shameful fact about the construction of Danube Bridge 2, which has to do with its very concept.
Here is a direct quote the most renowned transport geography scholar in Bulgaria, Prof. Marin Devedzhiev. This is what he wrote in an article entitled "Problems of the Regional Geopolitics of Northern Bulgaria" in the Bulgarian magazine "Geopolitika" in June 2007.
"...In this respect there are worrying symptoms since the Vidin-Calafat Bridge will feature a single track railway instead of a double track railway, and they claim, that "even in 30 years there will not be enough freight traffic for a double track railway". Such a position, however, is disputed by the Construction Department of the Todor Kableshkov University of Transport. As its scholars point out, "if a double track railway needs to be installed on the bridge [later], then one more bridge will have to be constructed parallel to this one". The construction of the bridge under the current project casts a doubt over the construction of Petrokhan Tunnel, which is only possible in the event of large freight traffic.
The bridge is an eternal structure. Its return on investment term is normatively 15 years in the first stage of its exploitation...
...The first stage includes attracting freight traffic from the countries in the southeastern part of Central Europe that gravitate towards the Western Mediterranean in terms of transport. To the north, the same region goes all the way to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, i.e. to the port of Szczecin, and Scandinavia.
The second stage includes the internal integration of the national territories along the route of Pan-European Transport Corridor No.4, which is the shortest route to Central Europe. That is, the "conquering" of these regions served by the Vidin-Calafat Bridge, requires active promotion, not inaction, and passive expectations. The promotion of the transport advantages of both the bridge and the Petrohan Tunnel is a matter of wide-ranging and intensive work, whose results are crucial for the efficiency of these facilities."
In other words, the shameful lack of bridges between Bulgaria and Romania, their shameful construction only by external players (the Roman Empire, the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, NATO and the EU), and the shameful delay and raising of the cost of this project are all topped by a shameful lack of insight, not to use some other word, with respect to the design of Danube Bridge 2.
The last reason to be ashamed of the way in which some day the Vidin-Calafat Bridge will be built has to do with the promises for its economic effects, which are threefold: the economic integration of Bulgaria and Romania as neighboring countries, EU member states, with very poor peripheries; the need to reverse the economic, social, and demographic collapse of Northwestern Bulgaria; the quest for attracting international freight traffic, i.e. integration within the Pan-European Transport Corridors and with a whole lot of other projects such as the Petrohan Tunnel mentioned by Prof. Devedzhiev.
It's clear that in addition to the colossal delays, inefficiency, bureaucratic incompetence, and – very likely – corruption – there is also a conceptual problem with Danube Bridge 2 since it is being built "by itself", without any thought of integrating it in a transcontinental transport corridor that could boost the mutual integration of the economies of Bulgaria and Romania the way the EU member states in Western Europe have it.
This in turn means that the bridge will have an almost zero economic and demographic effect for the rescue of the poorest region in the EU! Maybe that would have been different it had been built in time. After all, 10 years ago, Northwestern Bulgaria wasn't as depopulated as it is today.
Of course, it is a nice thing that Danube Bridge 2 between Bulgaria and Romania will be completed after all.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov will conceitedly stand next to Constantine the Great and Stalin as only the third builder of bridges on the Lower Danube (hopefully, in March 2013 it won't turn out that the bridge will be "extremely ready and functional" only after the 2013 general elections), even though Comrade Stanishev, His Highness Saxe-Coburg, and Commander Kostov were all involved in this glorious endeavor.
NATO will be able to use this route if it has to, God forbid!
A certain amount of freight and a certain number of travelers will also go through Vidin, experiencing the transit horrors from the post-communist dilapidation views from Northwestern Bulgaria.
Since some day Bulgaria will have to build
the Shipka Tunnel Pass, several more bridges on the Danube, Port Varna and Varna-West, the Black Sea-Danube canal, the Sofia-Skopje railway, and several more railways crossing Stara Planina and the Rhodope Mountains, several new border crossings, airport and port terminals,
we are only left with the following hope – that some day Bulgaria will have true, responsible citizenship, statesmen, and civil servants who will never forget the construction of the Bridge of Shame – Danube Bridge 2 between Bulgaria and Romania – as possibly the most negative example about what NOT to do when it comes to projects of such significance.
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