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The bridge between Vidin, Bulgaria and Calafat, Romania should open up one of Europe's poorest regions.
VIDIN, Bulgaria — Barges loom in the mist. Trucks wait, idling. A small crowd of passengers rub their hands and stamp their feet to keep warm. It's snowing and near-freezing. Save for the thin overhang of a clerk's office, there is no shelter. Welcome to the Danube River ferry crossing in Vidin, Bulgaria, near the Romanian border.
An hour passes. The snow is deeper. Then, a horn sounds. The ferry emerges from the mist. Passengers file onto the boat then spend another hour in a cramped, heated cabin as trucks roll onto the deck. Roma passengers — not Romanians, but Roma, the polite term for gypsies— stand outside in the cold.
The boat has no schedule. It departs when it's full.
Add passport control and customs to the 20-minute journey, and crossing the Danube between Vidin and Calafat, Romania, easily takes three hours. It's astoundingly inefficient, slowing the progress of the 90,000 vehicles that make the trip each year and stunting the economy of Vidin, southwestern Romania and northeastern Serbia, which together compose one of the poorest regions in Europe.
But now an end to that inefficiency — and, perhaps, to the region's poverty — is in sight. After years of delays, work has finally begun on a 2,000-meter-long bridge to connect Vidin and Calafat. The $310 million project is expected to attract investment and improve relations between two former Warsaw Pact allies who were never very close.
Danube Bridge Two will be about 190 miles away from the other bridge on Bulgaria and Romania's 290-mile river frontier and about 120 miles from the closest bridge in Serbia.
Construction began in 2009, about two years late. It's scheduled for completion in 2011. Bulgarian Ministry of Transport officials said the span should carry more than 3,000 cars and trucks a day within the next five years, an 1,100-percent increase in annual traffic compared to the ferry.
Boosters said the bridge would transform the region. Vidin now suffers from 14 percent unemployment, almost double the Bulgarian average. Calafat has a 10 percent jobless rate. Unemployment on the Serbian side of the border hovers around 20 percent.
"The northwestern part of Bulgaria suffers from high joblessness and low investment even though it is the closest area to Western and Central Europe," said Stoyan Stalev, president of the government's Invest Bulgaria Agency. "It's a closed route."