Business & Economy

Bielsa-Aragnouet: the tunnel fostering European solidarity

Bielsa, Spain, May 26 (EFE).- The Bielsa-Aragnouet tunnel, which connects the Spanish county of Sobrarbe with the department of Hautes-Pyrénées in France, is a 45-year-old tale of collaboration, synergies, narrowing ties and the growth of European solidarity.

The more than 3 kilometer-long international tunnel, which opened in 1976, is the result of a cross-border collaboration between these two municipalities that were still paying for its construction until “relatively recently” thanks to a complex, cross-border “economic engineering endeavor,” Bielsa Mayor, Miguel Noguero, tells Efe.

The opening of the tunnel, with 1,664 meters on the Spanish side and 1,821 on the French side, made it possible to further strengthen the commercial and neighborly relationship that had always existed in this border area.

In 2008, a Spanish-French consortium for the management, operation and conservation of the Bielsa-Aragnouet tunnel was created, which, in Noguero’s words, represents “a very high level of safety that is envied in other European cross-border tunnels.”

Made up of the regional governments of Aragon and Hautes-Pyrénées, the consortium jointly manages the 3-kilometer infrastructure as well as the 11 access tunnels to ensure that it is clean on both sides of the border and to avoid the risk of avalanches.

The consortium handles millions of euros worth of projects that bring the tunnel in line with EU safety standards and protect it from avalanches and falling rocks through the construction of dikes and barriers.

The two-lane tunnel is bi-directional for light vehicles and alternating in one direction for trucks, buses and caravans. Bicycles and pedestrians are prohibited, as are dangerous goods because the tunnel does not have an evacuation gallery.

The effectiveness of the consortium’s work with its management of European funds is demonstrated by the figures.

Since 2008, traffic has increased each year, with an average of 1,000 vehicles a day, although with large seasonal fluctuations: between 3,000 and 4,000 vehicles pass in summer, which falls to between 600-700 during the week in winter, and rises on ski weekends to 1,200-1,500, says Andrés Olloqui, director of the consortium.

The average number of trucks passing through daily is 60-70, although it has dropped to about 40 since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The tunnel is closed to traffic “two or three weeks at night” for maintenance work and in a winter of “normal” snowfall “between 7 and 10 days per season” due to the risks of avalanches at its entrances.

The tunnel being open all-year round accounts for 90% of the economy on the Spanish side, says Juan Carlos Vidalle, a resident of Bielsa who along with his brother runs a company that manages a ski rental shop, a cafe-restaurant, a supermarket and a service station in the nearby village of Parzan.

Where farmers used to raise cattle, residents of the valley nowadays “95%, if not 100%, live from tourism,” so the tunnel is their “way of life.”

“Without the tunnel we would be nobody,” Vidalle says.

He argues that when it was closed in winter they worked less, only six or seven months out of the year, and had just four employees. Since the consortium came to be, “it has changed their lives” because the tunnel does not close “practically for anything,” they have about 15 workers all year round and 90% of their clients are French.

They come because the fuel is cheaper, as well as to stock up on cheaper alcohol and tobacco, but also to enjoy the local gastronomy, while the Spaniards go to France to ski at resorts in Piau Engaly or Saint-Lary or to do road cycling, Vidalle says.

The economic interrelationship on both sides of the border is also promoted by public and private entities. EFE


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