BEIRUT — On March 15, 2018, the World Bank approved a $295 million funding package to reform the transportation sector in Lebanon. It will fund the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project (GBPTP) in the country’s most congested city.
Funding is guaranteed through a $225.2 million loan to be repaid over 31 years with an eight-year grace period and a grant of $69.8 million as a contribution from the Global Concessional Financing Facility established by the World Bank in 2016 to offer funding packages to countries whose economies are burdened by an influx of refugees like Lebanon and Jordan.
In a press release, the World Bank said, “The project envisages the purchase of 120 buses to service 40 kilometers [25 miles] of dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes from northern districts to the heart of Beirut. Additionally, 250 feeder buses will operate between the main stations and the hinterland.” During its implementation, the GBPTP “is expected to create 2 million labor days in construction jobs for low-income Lebanese and Syrians” and to “attract about 300,000 passengers per day” after its completion.
Ziad Nasr, director-general of the Railway and Public Transportation Authority (RPTA), told Al-Monitor that the RPTA had proposed a public transportation plan to the Cabinet a few years ago, but they were not able to implement it. However, Nasr noted, "The Cabinet approved the current project on Dec. 19, and the World Bank agreed to the funding scheme. This is an advanced step to reform the public transportation sector that has been long neglected." According to Nasr, the RPTA will coordinate with the Council for Development and Reconstruction to guarantee proper implementation of the GBPTP.
Nasr went on, “The project needs three years to be completed. It consists of constructing a network of lanes covering Beirut and connecting its neighborhoods to the district centers, installing bus stations in various Beirut streets so that citizens can find them wherever they live and setting up an information technology system for bus movement and a control center to supervise the work of buses that will operate according to a specific schedule. Infrastructure projects will be implemented to widen the roads and construct specific lanes allocated only to the new means of public transportation.”
Nasr noted that the project will focus on the northern entrance to Beirut due to the severe congestion there. The project mapped out a Bus Rapid Transit lane in that area. Buses will move on the highways in Beirut’s neighborhoods.
“The project will have a positive impact on Lebanon in terms of creating job opportunities and reduce the cost of congestion on the Lebanese economy,” Ziad al-Nakat, a specialist who headed a team of experts to design the project at the World Bank, told Al-Monitor. “The project will not solve the traffic crisis radically in Beirut, but it will definitely alleviate it and curb its economic cost. The commute between Beirut and the northern suburbs will be halved thanks to the Bus Rapid Transit lane, and fewer people will be using their own cars to move around. The transportation cost on citizens will be reduced because commuting in their own car requires buying gas and paying parking fees. Emissions and pollution caused by traffic will also be reduced, and car accidents will drop.”
The local Lebanese LBC TV reported Nov. 26, 2017, that according to Internal Security Forces statistics, between January and November, 3,140 accidents were reported, with 441 people dead and 4,179 injured.
Praising the positive impact of the project on the balance of development between the cities and rural areas, Nakat explained, “If advanced means of transportation are available, many people will be spared the pain of displacement to the city. This means that the project would have environmental, economic, social and health benefits.”
He further added, “This project will engage contracting and consultancy firms, mostly Lebanese ones. The Gulf markets where Lebanese contractors were active are witnessing an economic setback. Pumping investments into Lebanon’s infrastructure will create additional local opportunities. Private Lebanese and foreign companies will be assigned to buy, operate and maintain the buses. The private sector is expected to invest at least $50 million in this part of the project.”
Nakat continued, “The large economic costs of traffic congestion add up to between 5-10% of the GDP per year. Infrastructure projects have always employed Syrian and Lebanese labor, but since the international community wants to help refugees, we got this unconditional facility. The World Bank noted that the situation worsened with the influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, making up 25% of residents and increasing congestion by 15-25%.”
With the new funding, World Bank commitments to support Lebanon have risen to $1.7 billion, according to the World Bank figures released on March 15.
Raimond Felfly, the head of the Public Transportation Workers Syndicate, also praised the GBPTP. “Based on the experience I acquired from completing the transportation plan for Beirut in 1997 alongside French experts, I would say that the employment rate per bus would be 2.3 employees, including drivers and maintenance workers,” he told Al-Monitor. “In 1997, Lebanon implemented a public transportation plan after the civil war destroyed public transportation and railways. A new public transport plan was put in Beirut, the Bekaa and the North, and 225 buses were operated, but they soon went defunct given their poor [planning] that did not suit Lebanon’s climate and roads.”
Felfly further added, “Currently, the RPTA, with 267 employees, offers transportation services to citizens through 45 buses from 5:00 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. along nine routes in Beirut and five in the Bekaa. Each driver works seven hours a day, and the bus ticket ranges between 1,000 LBP [$0.66] and 1,500 LBP [$1].”
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s roads are jammed with cabs and buses with no routes or schedules. They have no stations or stops and do not use specific lanes or state supervision. The public transportation project cannot be completed soon enough.