2024 - that is the self-appointed deadline for the current government to finish the Hemus motorway and one that Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has been quoting persistently over the past year.
The construction of the road began in the 1970s but was put on hold over the past few decades as other key infrastructural projects were prioritized. However, a few years ago, the project was revived and put back on the table.
The highway should connect Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, to Varna, the third biggest city in the country. It can become a key driver of economic prosperity for Northern Bulgaria where everything is just too far away to flourish. Nonetheless, controversy surrounds the project and the government's latest decisions on how to finish the 2.7 billion leva project, as it commissioned the work to a state-owned company with no experience that will probably illegally and with no transparency use private subcontractors.
An old project with no luck
Hemus is incomplete in a very odd way as there is a "hole" in the middle. Тhere are 100 and 90 km respectively built at the two ends of the motorway - near Sofia and near Varna. Still, the road which crosses Northern Bulgaria from Pleven, Veliko Tarnovo, Targovishte and Shumen is not ready yet. Meanwhile, the gap in economic performance between Northern and Southern Bulgaria has intensified over the years and road infrastructure is seen as key to changing that. The highway is extremely important as it will create a faster and convenient link between the capital and Varna, as well as the cities in between. According to the Road Infrastructure Agency, the population which will be impacted by the construction of Hemus is about 2.9 million people, covering about 44% of the country's territory.
One reason the motorway was left behind in the 2000s was that there were no European funds dedicated to its construction. Thus, other roads - like Trakia between Sofia and Bourgas, and Struma which connects the capital with the Greek border, were prioritized. However, a few years ago the Road Agency launched a bid for the construction of two new segments. One of them - embracing 9 kilometres on the Western side of the road, was finished in the fall of 2019, just in time for the local elections. Тhe other one - 16 km between Targovishte and Shumen, are still being delayed.
A questionable decision
At the end of 2018 the government suddenly and without any public discussion announced that it was signing a 1.34 billion leva contract for the construction of 134 kilometres of the Hemus motorway with a state-owned construction company called Avtomagistrali (literally means "highways"). It was established in the early 1980s, during Communism, and its main job was to maintain highway infrastructure and do any required repairs. The company was quite secretive and not really familiar to the wider public. It did not respond to journalistic questions back in 2017 and even people from the construction business knew little of it. The only certainty was that for years Avtomagistrali "subscribed" to procurement contracts for maintenance of highways and signed them with quite a high price offers. After that, it subcontracted most of the work to private companies and basically served as a broker for such jobs.
Yet the Council of Ministers decided that the company was fit to complete the biggest road segment commissioned in one go since Communist times. A year after it signed the first contract, the Road Agency signed a second one regarding Hemus, again with Avtomagistrali, - this time for 1.38 billion leva with VAT for 89 km. Overall, the company suddenly found itself with two contracts covering over 220 kilometres in what was the costliest construction task ever assigned by the government. The contracts were signed using the "in-house" procedure whereby an institution can assign work directly to another public firm without organizing an open bid. The problem is that under this mechanism the company is not allowed to use outside help. Nevertheless, it seems that Avtomagistrali is illegally using subcontractors by signing contracts for "renting equipment", for instance. The problem is that in this case transparency and accountability over who, how and for what is being paid is almost nonexistent.
The clock is ticking
Even though the question of corruption and transparency in public spending is a significant one, most people more often ask: when will Hemus be ready? The government's deadline of 2024 for the whole highway now seems optimistic.
Probably the first segment due for completion will be the 16 km between Targovishte and Shumen. They were supposed to be finished by spring of 2020. However, multiple factors hindered the timely finalization of the road. Тhe contract between the Road Agency and the chosen construction companies was signed in September 2017 and they began work on the road section almost a year later, in August 2018. However, over two years later, the road segment is far from ready.
The initial deadline was supposed to be 730 days or two years. Nevertheless, the construction permit for almost the whole part of the highway was issued in October 2019. The main reason for the delay was the slow expropriation of land through which the highway needs to pass as well as legal battles over the size of compensation payments to landowners.
Right now there is only 52 km with a construction permit out of the over 220 km for which Avtomagistrali is responsible. The construction should officially take between three and four years, thus they will be ready sometime in 2023 if everything goes according to plan.
However, the more we move to the East, the further the completion date goes (see the map). The projects for the road after Veliko Tarnovo are not ready, nor has the land for the route been expropriated. Thus, the four-year horizon can be defined only as wildly over-optimistic.