- Road tunnels are to be built under the Shipka pass in central Bulgaria, Petrohan pass in the west, and close to the Black Sea coast in the east, regional development minister Grozdan Karadzhov announced
- The projects are in a very early stage of preparation and will need at least four to five years to be built
- The project for a tunnel under Shipka is in the most advanced phase but now it has to be redesigned
The Balkan mountain range, or Stara Planina, forms a natural geographical divide in Bulgaria, stretching from the Black Sea in the east to the border with Serbia in the west. While it served well to deter armed invasions in ancient times, nowadays it forms a barrier to transport links, dividing the country's northern half from its southern regions and hampering economic development. The existing passes across the mountain range, some of them in a rather poor condition, are not large enough to accomodate the significant international and domestic freight traffic flow in the north-south direction.
Five European transport corridors pass through Bulgaria, but there is no fast connection between them and their potential for bolstering the country's economic development remains untapped. That is why the idea of tunnels under the mountain is so important. Yet, none has been built for decades, although the construction of a tunnel under Petrohan pass has been considered for 50 years, and the idea for a tunnel under Shipka is more than a century old.
Grozdan Karadjov, regional development minister in the coalition cabinet that took office in December 2021, announced at his first press conference that tunnels under the Balkan range will be priority projects.
A day later, the project in the most advanced phase (the Shipka tunnel) was returned to the starting point. Although a consortium has been contracted to build it, Karadzhov said it was not right for the tunnel to have only two lanes, and insisted that a new project design is needed.
The tunnel under Shipka is planned to be 3.2 km in length. The entire approach route includes four shorter tunnels of 171 m, 240 m, 90 m, and 290 m, six bridges, and one underpass. According to preliminary estimates, the tunnel under Shipka should halve travel time between Gabrovo district in the north and Stara Zagora in the south. If now it takes about an hour to travel from the town of Kazanlak in southern Bulgaria to Gabrovo in the north, with the tunnel it should take up to 30 minutes. The tunnel will become part of European Transport Corridor 9, which connects northern Europe with Greece's Aegean port of Alexandroupolis.
Also, the new tunnel would provide faster access to Trakia highway from central-northern Bulgaria as well as a connection to Turkey at the end of the Ruse-Svilengrad corridor. This all sounds good but the question is "When?"
According to the Ministry of Regional Development, a preliminary technical design for the open road was developed in 2008, and an extended conceptual design for the tunnel was completed in 2018. A detailed technical design has yet to be prepared.
According to the current indicative deadlines, the technical project will take 240 calendar days to prepare and the construction itself is expected to be completed in 1280 days. Unless the new management at the Road Infrastructure Agency and the Ministry of Regional Development does not radically change anything in the process, the earliest deadline for the completion of the tunnel is four years and a half. As these deadlines concern the construction of a two-lane road, if the minister decides to add more lanes, works will probably take even more time to complete.
The project for this tunnel is quite ambitious but so far it has never been a priority. Ideas to build it date back to 1962 but bringing them to fruition will be even more time-consuming than the construction of a tunnel under Shipka.
The tunnel under Petrohan pass is planned to be 7 km in length with two lanes, design travel speed of up to 90 km per hour, and elevation of 240 m. The finalization of the project has been delayed because the selected route is crossing protected areas. Now the regional development ministry says that work on the project continues. For now, there are three options for routes, with all of them following the road Kostinbrod - Montana and deviating between the villages of Shuma and Buchin Prohod.
A tunnel under Petrohan will become part of European transport corridor 4 and will significantly reduce travel time between Montana and Sofia, thus providing a faster connection between Vidin, on the Danube river, and the Greek border.
According to the regional development ministry, the whole procedure requires significant time and optimistically it can be completed in the first half of 2023. This means the tunnel would open for traffic in at least four or five years, provided Bulgaria has the money to build it. A possible opportunity for the financing part is the Three Seas Initiative.
Black Sea highway tunnel
This tunnel should be part of a project that still exists only on paper - the Black Sea highway that will link the coastal cities of Varna and Burgas, of which just a section 10 km in length has been built. Work on the design of the project began in the 1970s, and the new government has stated that it wants to build the tunnel. A public tender for a detailed conceptual design and geological surveys was opened in 2019 and a consortium named Project AM Black Sea won it with an offer of 9.5 million levs. The Black Sea highway will become part of European transport corridor 8.
According to the accepted variant, the tunnel will be 950 m long, located between the northwestern side of the village of Kosharitsa and the southeastern side of the village of Plazovets. It will have an additional lane for slow-moving vehicles.
There is still much work to do before the start of construction: engineering and geological studies, permits from the environment ministry, urban planning. Optimistically, construction works can start at the end of 2023.