Pelješac Bridge – Will It Ever Be Built?

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A chronology of attempts to start the construction of Pelješac Bridge.

In Croatia, it’s rare that construction projects are completed in time, some which are finished with a slight delay, and many which take much longer than expected to be completed, and then there is Pelješac Bridge.

More than 20 years since the first announcement and more than ten years since the construction works officially “began,” Pelješac Bridge is still nowhere to be seen. The start of the construction is always just six to nine months away, but the deadlines keep being pushed from one decade to another, and even from one century to the next. Prompted by the latest announcement by the Transportation Minister that the start of construction has been delayed once more, here’s an overview of just some of the events which have led us here.

Pelješac Bridge has been proclaimed a strategically-important construction project for Croatia, which makes the state’s inability to complete it over all these years even more remarkable. If ever built, it will connect the southernmost part of Croatia around Dubrovnik, which is part of Dubrovnik-Neretva County, with the rest of Croatia. They are currently separated by a short stretch of coastal territory belonging to Bosnia and Herzegovina around the town of Neum, which means that cars travelling to and from the Dubrovnik area and the Pelješac peninsula have to cross the border twice, or alternatively take a short ferry ride to the peninsula. Both options make travel longer than it should, particularly during the height of the tourist season when masses of tourists make the long waiting times even longer.

The first prominent politician who spoke about the need for the bridge to be constructed was Ivan Šprlje, the Prefect of Dubrovnik-Neretva County in the late 1990s. Interestingly, the proposal of SDP’s prefect was initially strongly criticised by HDZ, who accused him of trying to isolate Croats living in the Neum area in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the new bridge would bypass. Just several years later, the beliefs of the two parties would be reversed, with HDZ advocating for the bridge and SDP saying that it was an overly expensive vanity project.

In 1998, just a year after Šprlje’s initial proposal, HDZ changed its mind and decided to take over the idea as its own. Luka Bebić, a party official from nearby Metković and later speaker of parliament, officially presented it in parliament. From that moment on, the proposal has become one of the leading points of HDZ’s manifestos for all subsequent elections.

In 2000, SDP came to power and decided to put the focus on the construction of the motorway network in the country. Šprlje, who now had party colleagues in high positions, said that “a study of the county road network would soon be prepared and that it would include the unconditional construction of Pešeljac Bridge.” Of course, nothing happened. The government did make significant progress in the development of the road and motorway network, with Split and Rijeka being connected to Zagreb, but the southern part of Croatia remained forgotten.

Nothing much happened until 2003 when, ahead of parliamentary elections, new HDZ president Ivo Sanader proclaimed that the construction of the bridge was “a sacred goal.” A few months later, HDZ won the elections, and Sanader became the Prime Minister.

In 2005, it suddenly seemed as if the “strategically important” project would finally be realised. Prime Minister Sanader came to the future’s bridge location together with a sizeable ministerial delegation and, at a specially organised ceremony, officially marked the beginning of the construction works. Needless to say, the ceremony was held just for the media and promotional purposes, with works never actually starting.

Two years later, in 2007, with new parliamentary elections approaching, Sanader realised that he should do something to make it appear as if the project was moving along. He wasn’t very creative, so he just repeated what he did two years earlier. The second ceremony marking the official start of the construction works was held, again with the prime minister and other officials gathering at the site, making important speeches and giving optimistic forecasts. To make it all appear more believable, a construction permit for the bridge was issued, and a contract for the construction was signed with a consortium of Croatian companies. It worked; Sanader won the second term as prime minister, and the bridge was soon again forgotten.

In 2009, more than a full decade after the initial proposal, and with nothing much happening, the Assembly of Dubrovnik-Neretva County adopted the “Declaration on Transport Isolation of the County”, complaining about the fact that, while other parts of Croatia could enjoy the benefits of the newly-constructed motorway network, the southernmost Croatian county still had neither the bridge nor a single kilometre of motorway. The declaration was quite a surprise, given that it criticised the HDZ government but was supported by local HDZ officials, which doesn’t happen very often. But, again, there was no result.

That same year, Sanader resigned as prime minister under still unexplained circumstances and was replaced by his deputy Jadranka Kosor. She brought some changes to the government, primarily by not being indicted for massive corruption, but as far as Pelješac Bridge was concerned, she followed in her predecessor’s footsteps.

There were some developments, but they didn’t amount to much. In 2010, even some test drilling occurred at the site, and a pillar or two were partially built. In the end, the works were stopped before they started for real, the contract with the consortium was discontinued, and 230 million kuna were spent in vain. Still, the prime minister was an optimist. “We’re continuing with the construction of the bridge, which is much more than a mere infrastructure project, albeit more slowly. We plan to have it finished by 2015.”

In 2011, Kosor lost the election and SDP returned to power. Although the bridge was initially a proposal by their local official, the party under Prime Minister Zoran Milanović changed its mind and said that the project was unnecessary, too expensive for Croatia which had been hit by the economic crisis, and would not be worth the investment. It had some support from international organisations, with, for example, the European Investment Bank saying that the project was senseless and not in line with the long-term European vision.

Milanović’s government was heavily criticised as traitorous for this and for many other positions. Under pressure, it slowly changed its mind and by the end of its term, it started advocating for the bridge, with the condition that it should be financed from funds from the European Union after Croatia became a member in 2013. Alternative proposals started appearing, with an extraterritorial corridor through Neum, an underwater tunnel, and a floating bridge being mentioned most often. Still, the opposition to the project was efficiently used as an argument against the government during the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2015.

HDZ returned to power, but delays continued. The short-lived government led by Tihomir Orešković was too busy with internal conflicts to do anything much and was soon replaced by another HDZ government, this time led by Andrej Plenković.

Finally, in mid-2017, the European Union announced it would cover most of the cost of the bridge, which prompted the government to publish a new tender for the contractors. Of course, the tender has been marked by numerous complaints and appeals from bidders who weren’t selected, which further postponed the expected deadlines. In recent weeks, however, it has been announced that the selected contractor will be a Chinese consortium, pending the resolution of appeals by other bidders.

Another problem are the continuous claims coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina that the construction cannot start before Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia solve their land and sea border disputes around Neum. However, it doesn’t seem likely that Croatia will wait for that, particularly since border disputes in former Yugoslavia usually take decades to be solved.

It remains to be seen whether this is the last obstacle and whether the bridge will truly be built in the next few years. After everything we witnessed during the previous two decades, further postponements would not be too surprising.


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