Spotlights illuminate night-shift workers toiling in swirling mist under the concrete pillars of a new bridge that will one day link Bulgaria and Romania across the Danube river.

“We’re working 24 hours a day to make up time before the temperature falls below freezing and construction stops,” says Alberto Vergara, project manager at FCC Construcción, the Spanish contractor building the bridge as well as road and rail connections on the Bulgarian side. By any reckoning, the catch-up process is long overdue.

In spite of being a “fast track” European Union project, the Danube 2 bridge project linking Vidin, Bulgaria, with Calafat in Romania, is eight years behind schedule.

Its completion date was recently put back by another 18 months to the end of 2012.

The projected construction cost has risen by almost 50 per cent to €300m ($390m), partly because of delays but also owing to changes to it.

The delays and overruns in the bridge over the Danube illustrate how even the best intentioned of EU structural funds projects can get caught up in a tangle of divergent interests and end up being slowed by bureaucracy.

They also have real consequences. Vidin and its surrounding villages – already the EU’s second-poorest region – have suffered as a result, says Rumen Vidov, the city’s mayor.

More than 25 per cent of its population has emigrated during the past decade to work in Spain, Greece and Italy.

”We’re confident that foreign investors will set up here when the bridge is eventually finished,” Mr Vidov says.

“But if the project had been completed on time, fewer people would have left.”

Even once it opens, the bridge is unlikely to attract significant commercial traffic until the narrow two-lane road from Vidin to Sofia is upgraded to European highway standards.

However, the projected €1.2bn road upgrade for the 200km to the capital is still some years off.

Funding for that will only become available in Bulgaria’s next EU structural funds package, due to be launched in 2014.

“This was the first big EU-funded project in Bulgaria, yet it came perilously close to being a white elephant,” says Rosen Plevneliev, minister for regional development and public works.

The EU, the European Investment Bank and Germany’s KfW development bank undertook to finance 70 per cent of the bridge’s initial €225m budget.

The funds were channelled through Bulgaria’s pre-accession ISPA funding package – an EU candidate country’s equivalent of structural funds. Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007.

The bridge design proved the first stumbling block, says Nikolay Vassilev, a former Bulgarian transport minister who handled the project from 2003 to 2005.

The Danube 2 bridge was intended as a key junction on a European transport corridor intended to speed north-south traffic from the Baltic to the Aegean. Yet the European Commission’s initial proposal called for a one-road lane in each direction without a rail link.

“We eventually won the battle with Brussels to get four traffic lanes and the rail line but we lost about three years in the process,” Mr Vassilev says.

After winning an international tender in 2007, FCC Construcción also had to wait more than two years before starting work at Vidin because of delays with permits and a late change in the engineering design in order to strengthen the bridge.

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