A new bridge over the Danube

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."

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Stalev said the bridge could funnel Bulgarian wine north and attract investment from Czech and Slovak automakers seeking low-cost Bulgarian workers to produce auto parts. It will also give Romanians better access to Greece, Serbians an easier route to Russia — Belgrade’s ally — and western Europe a straight shot to Turkey.

Local and European Union officials became convinced of the bridge’s necessity during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, when hostilities blocked Serbian highways, cutting the eastern Balkans off from western Europe.

Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are the size of Tennessee, Oregon and South Carolina, respectively, but their economies were not integrated during the communist era. Yugoslavia was never part of the Soviet Bloc. Romania pursued pseudo-independent diplomacy. Bulgaria maintained close ties with Moscow. Those legacies are only now fading, even after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007.

"In Calafat, in the market there are many Bulgarians who sell their goods," said Mayor Mircea Guta. "Under communism, they wouldn't do that. Bulgaria was closer to Russia. They are Slavic. We were closer to the European countries."

Calafat has shrunk by 50 percent, to 20,000 people, in the last two decades as local textile factories closed, Guta said. He hoped new businesses would open along improved roads leading to the bridge.

In Vidin, a provincial center of 70,000, people are less optimistic. While foreign engineers and construction have pumped money into the local economy, the locals don't expect a windfall.

"I don’t think it will be something extremely different from what it is now," said Hristian Venchov, a bartender at The Theater, a restaurant with a view of the Danube. "Just more traffic. The authorities are just promising, but the project is going on for so many years that I have the feeling it’s all just talking."

It's possible another delay is on the horizon. EU funding for the bridge expires this year, before the project should finish. Bulgaria is working feverishly to extend the deadline or else lose about $50 million. European Commission spokesman Dennis Abbott said EU officials expect the project to meet the deadline.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Romanian Premier Emil Boc have sent a co-authored letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso requesting a year-long extension on the deadline.

“We hope Mr. Barroso will take into account the fact that we are new governments and are not to blame for the delay in the project," said Borrisov at a Feb. 26 press conference with Boc in Sofia. "Our ambitions are that every single euro is absorbed.”

Passengers traveling on the ferry recently said they couldn’t wait for bridge’s ribbon cutting. "It will make life easier,” said Dordel, a Romanian who declined to give his family name but said he often shopped in Vidin, where prices are cheaper. "Everything will go fast.”