RIGA - Anyone driving across the Daugava River into Riga will notice a new, orange addition to the skyline. The Southern Bridge (Dienvidu Tilts), the first payment for which cost 258 million lats (367 million euros), is a source of both pride and irritation for Latvian taxpayers.
The idea for the project was hatched by the Riga City Council in January 2002. The plan was to connect Vienibas gatve, on the left bank, and the Slavu roundabout on the right bank of the Daugava to alleviate traffic problems in the city center.
Seemingly a good idea, the design was sketched out by Georgijs Rusinovs and approved in June of 2003. The project brought together a grand total of six construction companies to form the "Dienvidu Tilts" joint stock company.
The realization of the first three stages of design and construction cost taxpayers a total of 85.5 million lats, including a planning competition. However, the costly process also involved taking out a 20-30 year loan by the municipal government. And this is only the first stage.
So far, the 803 meter bridge has cost 258 million lats to construct and is only the first of a triad of costly processes.
The loan makes sense 's instead of paying everything now, do it in increments. But the bridge itself is not even guaranteed to make it to the end of the loan period.
The bridge now has a five-year guarantee and was found safe and drivable by 1280.51 tons of trucks going various speeds. The relatively small time frame for the guarantee, however, has left many taxpayers upset.
"The bridge only has a five year guarantee, my washing machine has a longer guarantee than that," said K. Role, a banker.
Safe and sound?
Preliminary test drive pictures showed the bridge buckling a bit under the weight of the heavy trucks, prompting motorists to feel unsafe about driving across.
"The Dienvidu Bridge is absolutely safe," said Eduards Raubisko, head of the Construction Directorate told Diena, as alarming reports surfaced regarding the stability of the bridge.
He went on to say that "it is absolutely normal that the bridge bearings bent a little during the safety tests, and so it had to be."
Raubisko explained to journalists and inquiring citizens days before the bridge was opened to the public that he thought the surface would remain in good condition for at least seven years, despite the five-year guarantee given by construction companies. He pointed out that the bridge meets all EU standard regulations.
This would mean that the bridge will have to be renovated in the first 7-10 years of its existence, something taxpayers are even less happy about.
Experts estimate that the "most expensive bridge in human history" will be the new Forth Bridge in Scotland, to be started in 2011. The total cost there is estimated at 4 billion pounds. However, the bridge is 2,512 meters long, nearly three times the length of the 258 million lat Southern bridge in Latvia.
New bridges of the same style such as the already completed Millau Bridge in France cost around 394 million euros to build. The Millau Bridge is three times longer than the new bridge spanning the Daugava and was designed using high-tech devices and Swiss engineers to build the complex pylons.
As the first stage of the Southern Bridge has reached its completion, citizens are left to wonder: what's next?
Source of pride
Of course modern marvels are not lost on even the most tight-fisted individuals, and the orange bridge is quite a sight.
As the first pedestrians and public cars were allowed onto the bridge, the excitement was palpable and some even started climbing on the cables. Construction heads reported on that first day that traffic even seemed reduced in other areas 's a clear sign that the bridge was already doing its job.
Granted, it was a four day weekend, which meant that people were most likely not out driving and instead celebrating Nov. 18th.
"I was proud that the day before Latvia's 90th anniversary, we could give our city a special gift 's the Southern Bridge, the fifth bridge in Riga to span the Daugava. Such big bridges are not often built in the world, which is why for the construction workers it is a big honor," said AS "Dienvidu tilts" head Guntis Ravis as he opened the bridge to the public.
Riga City Mayor Janis Birks also had a few kind words to say about the bridge.
"The Southern bridge is a necessary traffic infrastructure object, since in the last 10 years, Riga has filled out. The new bridge's organization in Riga was vitally important, as the city admits that the growing intensity of traffic begs a big solution," the mayor said.
"The process was long and complex, but I can say with complete certainty that from now on traffic will be one of our top priorities," he said.
However, underneath all the glory and excitement of the new bridge is an underlying current of something a bit suspicious.
Reports of money laundering have been circulating since the inception of the bridge, from the highest designers to the lowest workers.
Recently, an employee at one of Latvia's banks told The Baltic Times that she had met one of the construction workers at a party and talked about the bridge a bit, and how much money he was making. After fairly innocent conversation, they exchanged numbers and parted ways. Two days later, she received a phone call from the man who asked her to basically "wash some money for me."
"If he was asking me, a practical stranger to do this, I can't imagine how many other people he had asked. Who knows how many other workers have been doing this," said the banker, who preferred to remain anonymous.
It may be some time before corruption agencies and other watchdogs crack down on possible money laundering, but citizens have been suspicious since the start.
"Here you see robbery on an abnormal scale. That bridge isn't really built with anything special, but costs a huge amount," said Karlis, an employee in the public works sector.
The construction team bragged about the fact that the entire building process for the bridge would not impede traffic flow at all. They kept to their word. However, one might ask, why, if there were no traffic problems in that area, was the bridge being built to help diffuse traffic?
"Of course it's not going to solve any traffic problems. The bridge was simply convenient for a lot of swindlers. The next big project is the library. We have to build the most expensive one in the world as well," Karlis went on to explain.
Whether or not the bridge ends up being the most expensive in the world is hardly the problem here. The idea that even in the most innocent of construction projects, meant to help the public, corruption is still found and money is still wasted.
The Southern Bridge stats and figures
Length 803 m
Width 34.28 m
Speed limit 80 km/h
Total cost 258 million lats
Total cost plus estimated inflation and interest paid in 20 years 313 million lats