The Pelješac Bridge was not exactly without controversy: the project was financed by the EU. European construction companies were nevertheless disappointed because the contract was awarded to a Chinese state-owned company. More crucially, a country loses contact with Europe in one fell swoop, satellite images show.
Viewed in isolation, the white bridge that has been spanning the islands of the Adriatic for several weeks is a moderately impressive structure. The Pelješac Bridge is 2,400 meters long, 400 meters shorter than the connection between the island of Rügen and the German mainland, and not significantly larger than the longest bridge over the Rhine near Duisburg. Even the longest bicycle-only bridge in the Dutch province of Zeeland counts twice as many meters as the Croatian structure.
Nevertheless, the opening of the bridge has caused quite a stir, and for good reason: The connection between the Croatian mainland and the Pelješac peninsula is part of what is probably the most unusual bypass road in the world. No city and no nature reserve is bypassed here, but rather an entire country: Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A glance at a map of Croatia immediately makes the reason for the construction clear. The state’s territory stretches southward along the Adriatic coast to the outermost point of Dubrovnik as an ever-narrower strip. Shortly before the country’s most popular tourist destination, however, the connection breaks off: A hole barely 14 kilometers long opens up: the Bay of Neum, Bosnia’s only access to the Mediterranean Sea.
As strategically important as the spot may be for the Bosnian state, the section has always been an annoying obstacle for travelers heading south. The highway, well developed until just before the border, ends abruptly. Instead, the route takes a winding coastal road, including two mandatory stops at the border crossings.
Since 2007, there have been plans in Croatia to simply bypass the piece. As a peninsula, the southern Croatian coastline continues parallel to the mainland to the north, forming a fjord that connects the Bosnian part to the Adriatic Sea – and at the narrowest point of which the bridge has now been built.
Even the construction of the bridge caused some trouble, as it seemed to be another gateway for Chinese investors in Europe. After long unsuccessful attempts, the contract for the construction of the bridge was awarded to the Chinese state-owned company CRBC. Unlike the controversial construction of a freeway in Montenegro or the railroad line between Budapest and Belgrade, however, there were no loans that could have created a dependency. The Chinese workers simply promised a cheaper price and a very short construction time – and delivered both.
It was not until 2018 that CRBC was awarded the contract. As the exclusive satellite images from LiveEO from the summer of that year show, no preliminary work had been done at that time. Only three years later – in a time span in which only the first piers were built for the new Rhine bridge near Leverkusen – the structure is now completely finished.
In contrast to the blue Adriatic Sea, the bright white suspension bridge has the potential to become a landmark for the region. At present, it seems above all like a gesture of mockery to the other construction companies involved, including Austria’s Strabag. At the time, the company had protested strongly against the awarding of the contract to CRBC and had also taken legal action against it, ultimately without success.
And so the Chinese began construction of the bridge, while Strabag is responsible for large parts of the land connection.
Previously, only smaller local roads led across the Pelješac peninsula, which would have been completely overwhelmed by the load of summer tourist traffic. Therefore, a new overland route will connect the bridgehead in Brijesta with highway number 8, bypassing the town of Ston on a large scale. This structure is also quite costly; four tunnels alone have to be dug, and Strabag is responsible for all of them. Since then, the company has been enthusiastic about its own construction progress, but the Austrians cannot keep up with the Chinese.
As majestically as the Pelješac Bridge may span the sea, even weeks after its opening it remains a structure without function. Although Strabag was able to announce the breakthrough for the longest tunnel on the route in June, the current pictures from the air show that there is still a lot of work to be done before the new road on the peninsula is completed.
On the northern side of the bridge in Komarna, too, not all the work is done by a long shot; here, the bridge is to dock with the existing north-south axis. The current plan is for both approaches to be ready next summer, in time for the arrival of the annual vacation caravan.
If this succeeds, Bosnia’s Neum could become quiet – but whether this is a good or a bad development for the country is a matter of dispute among the inhabitants. On the one hand, the discussions run along ethnic lines; the government representative of the Bosnian Croats, Dragan Čović, defended the project early on, unlike the then President Bakir Izetbegović. But even from a purely economic perspective, the pros and cons balance each other out. On the one hand, the new bridge permanently limits the height of ships entering Bosnia to a good 50 meters. However, there is currently no port that could accommodate such large barges anyway. At the same time, the bridge frees the seaside resort of Neum from the noise and dirt of through traffic, even if it costs the merchants their business, who lived precisely from.
The consequences of the bridge construction are therefore clear in only one respect: They distance Bosnia a decisive piece from the European Union, which is co-financing 85 percent of the approximately 550 million euro construction of the bypass road. And in doing so, it has demonstrated in a very visible way that it does not see the poor landlocked country of Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the community, despite all the talk to the contrary. Concrete is stronger than paper.