SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria launched the first of two tenders late on Friday for a 340-million-euro ($412 million) high-speed rail project meant to help the Balkan state overcome geographic isolation ahead of EU membership in 2007. The Transport Ministry invited contractors to submit binding bids by September 28 to upgrade the first 38 kilometers (23.6 miles) of rail linking Bulgaria with neighbors Greece and Turkey. «The bids will be publicly opened on September 29 and the investor with the best financial offer will be contracted in March or April of next year,» Deputy Transport Minister Sofia Kasidova told Reuters. «The stretch should be operational by mid-2007.» Contractors are required to build 70 percent new tracks and overhaul the remainder to create a high-speed corridor allowing trains to travel at 160 kilometers per hour. The whole project, which should be completed by 2011, will be financed with a 153-million-euro grant from EU pre-accession funds, a 150-million-euro loan from the European Investment Bank, and 37 million euros from the state budget. Kasidova said the second tender for the design and electrification of the remaining 113 kilometers will be launched after the contract for the first stretch is signed and the construction works are started. At present, Bulgaria has only a few congested road border crossings with Greece and Turkey and low-speed train crossings.