VIDIN, Bulgaria – A new bridge opened Friday between Bulgaria and Romania, the second on the 500-kilometer stretch of the Danube River that forms the common border between the Balkan neighbors, is touted as a key to boosting growth in one of Europe's poorest regions.
But skeptics argue that dilapidated infrastructure on both sides of the river will turn it into "a bridge to nowhere."
The long-delayed bridge linking Vidin in Bulgaria with Calafat in Romania was being opened Friday at a ceremony attended by top politicians of the two countries and EU officials.
The 282 million euros ($375 million) project was backed by 106 million euros from the European Union, which both countries joined in 2007; the rest came from national financing and private investments. It is part of the Pan-European transport corridor IV, linking Dresden in Germany with the Aegean port city of Thessaloniki and Istanbul further east.
The cable-stayed, steel and concrete bridge has two traffic lanes in each direction, a railway line, two pedestrian paths and a bicycle track. Overall, the bridge is 3,598 meters (11,804 feet ) long, with 1,791 meters over the river.
The only other bridge between the two Balkan countries, linking the cities of Ruse and Giurgiu, was completed in 1954.
In Vidin, local officials hope new businesses will open along the roads leading to the bridge, which is expected to be crossed annually by 100,000 vehicles.
New jobs are badly needed in this northwestern corner of Bulgaria, which together with southwestern Romania and northeastern Serbia compose one of the poorest and most depopulated regions in Europe.
Vidin has an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, almost double the Bulgarian average. The population has shrunk by 25 percent, to 48,000 people, in the last two decades as local factories closed, and many left to look for a job in the capital, Sofia, or abroad.
Vidin mayor Gergo Gergov hopes that the new bridge and other infrastructure projects in the region will help to break the isolation.
"So far businesses hesitated to use the river to develop relations with Europe, as ferryboat transportation was costly, and they looked mostly for local markets. Now this will change," he said.
The project was started in the late 1990s, when local and European Union officials became convinced of the bridge's necessity during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, when highways and bridges were destroyed by bombs, cutting off routes from the Balkans to western Europe.
While foreign engineers and construction workers have pumped money into the local economy, the locals don't expect a windfall.
Borislav Markov, 57, moved four years ago to Spain with his family after he had lost his job as a construction worker. He returned briefly to his home town to see his sick mother.
"I have no big expectations for the future of the region. I don't believe that this bridge will bring any dramatic change. The only thing is that people can now walk on the bridge to Calafat to look for some cheaper goods," he said.
Vasil Iliev, who runs a small cafe in the city, says the result will be just more traffic.
"Few shops next to the bridge could profit from it, and most likely it would bring new clients for prostitutes and drug dealers," he complained.
Civil groups in Vidin have appealed to the authorities to improve the roads that lead to the bridge, or else risk leaving it as a beautiful monument.
"If there is no appropriate infrastructure," said Irena Alexandrova of the group I Love Vidin, "this will be a bridge to nowhere."