DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Saturday celebrated the opening of the country’s longest bridge, which took eight years to build amid setbacks related to political conflict and corruption allegations.
The 6.51-kilometer bridge over the Padma River cost an estimated $3.6 billion and was paid for with domestic funds after the World Bank and other global credit institutions refused to fund the project following a bribery scandal involving a Canadian construction company.
The bridge, which opens to the public on Sunday, will reduce the distance between the capital Dhaka and Bangladesh’s second largest seaport, Mongla, by 100 kilometers.
“The bridge belongs to the people of Bangladesh. It sums up our passion, creativity, courage, endurance and perseverance,” Hasina said at a ceremony in Mawa, about 31 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Dhaka.
While not a direct part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, the bridge was built by the China Major Bridge Engineering Company Ltd. and is seen by Beijing as a milestone for its cooperation with Bangladesh, according to a statement by Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming.
The China Railway Group has said that Padma Bridge will later have a rail network that links up with other Belt and Road projects and will serve as an important link between China and a pan-Asian rail network.
Economists say the Padma Bridge will increase Bangladesh’s gross domestic product by an additional 1.3% a year, contributing to robust growth forecasts from the Asian Development Bank that predict Bangladesh’s economy will reach $465 billion. grow by 6.9% in 2021-22 and 7.1% in 2022 -23.
Officials said the bridge will connect at least 21 districts in the southern and southwestern regions of Bangladesh.
Experts say the bridge’s construction, which involved more than 4,000 engineers, was a major engineering challenge. The underwater poles extend to 122 meters (400 feet) deep, a world record, and require 41 pillars. At some points in the river, the water flow rate is only second to the Amazon River worldwide.
The World Bank said in 2012 it had found elements of corruption involving a Canadian construction company in the plans for the Padma Bridge and decided to stay away from funding $1.2 billion for the project.
The decision prompted other lenders, including the Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency and Islamic Development Bank, to distance themselves from the project. Hasina then said that Bangladesh would build the bridge with its own resources.
The corruption charges went to a Superior Court in Ontario, Canada, which acquitted three former top executives of SNC-Lavalin, the Canadian company, in an international bribery case linked to the bridge’s construction in 2017.
Hasina also defied bitter criticism from political opposition led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during the bridge’s construction. The opposition criticized Hasina’s government for tripling the budget over the years and accused the authorities of corruption. Hasina dismissed the allegations.