Tbilisi Bypass – Government’s forgotten priority?
The Tbilisi Bypass, a railway around the city, construction of which began in 2010, has recently emerged as an issue of political confrontations on numerous occasions. Given the importance of the Project, Transparency International (TI) Georgia has once already published a study on the Tbilisi Bypass and addressed the government with recommendations.
According to the statements of the Georgian Railway and the government, construction works for the Tbilisi Bypass Project have been suspended due to the flaws discovered by Mobility Consultants. In August 2013 then Minister of Economy and Vice Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said that the government was planning to suspend the Tbilisi Bypass project until the final decisions could be made on the manner of relocation of the railway from the center of Tbilisi. On 5 December 2013, the Government of Georgia made a decision to suspend the Bypass Project for three years and to use this period to address the existing shortcomings. According to the head of the public relations of the Georgian Railway, Dachi Tsaguria, the construction company (a joint venture of China Railway 23rd Bureau Group Co. Ltd and JSC Khidmsheni) covers conservation expenses for the project. The Georgian Railway explained to TI Georgia that the company has not allocated any additional funds for conservation of the project. The construction of the Tbilisi Bypass should have been renewed in 2016.
In order to update the study on the Bypass, TI Georgia addressed the Georgian Railway, Tbilisi City Hall and the Ministry of Economy with questions regarding the renewal of construction works on the Bypass and about the company responsible for completing the project. We also asked the following questions:
- Was the project amended to take into account the shortcomings discovered by the MC Mobility Consultants GmbH?
- How were the shortfallings addressed and what are the main differences between the initial and the final Bypass projects?
Tbilisi City Hall responded that no information about these issues were found in the municipality database and forwarded our letter to the Georgian Railway.
According to the Georgian Railway, based on the contract with the Georgian Railway MC Mobility Consultants prepared a study, a report of which has been presented to Tbilisi City Hall by the Georgian Railway with a goal of further discussions. However, according to their information, by 12 February 2015, the review of the report was not been completed by the City Hall and therefore, no decisions have been made. According to the arguments provided by the Georgian Railway, the City Hall was analysing the current General Plan of land usage, which was completed in January 2015. According to them, the analysis made clear that there was a need for development of a new General Plan (or an update to the current one) in order to take into account new challenges and priorities of territorial and spatial development of the city. With this goal, Tbilisi City Hall announced a competition on procurement of an opinion (vision) on 19 May 2015. The competition produced three winners, the City Hall will sign an appropriate contract with the first place (an association of legal entities City of Future) in the first half of October of this year. According to the Georgian Railway, development/updating of the General Plan for land usage is directly connected with the implementation of the Bypass Project and therefore, development of the General Plan is a prerequisite of any decision on the Project, without which no decision can be made. However, it is noteworthy that the General Plan will have to define a development direction of the territory left after the relocation of the railway from the center of the city and not when or how the freight railway will be relocated from Tbilisi.
On 27 November 2015 the deputy Mayor of Tbilisi Irakli Likvinadze and the Director of Infrastructure of the Georgian Railway Guram Guramishvili, when talking about the Bypass Project, said that the final version of the Bypass Project will be selected after the development of the General Plan for Tbilisi, at this stage there are three alternative versions of completion of the project. According to their information, the first version involves a minor reconstruction of the already constructed bypass railway and a new line will be used by cargo trains. According to the second version significant changes will be made to the already existing bypass and 11 km of it will be changed. In the third version, a minor change will be made in regards to the direction of the Bypass and the railway presence in the city will be minimal. According to Guram Guramishvili, all three alternatives are different in terms of necessary financial resources. “The first version, which to us seems most optimal costs 300 million Swiss francs, second version adds 64 million to that amount, while third version adds 140 million”, says the Director of Infrastructure of the Georgian Railway. It is noteworthy that none of the alternatives envisions transportation of explosive materials through the city.
TI Georgia wrote in the study published in 2013 that the persons responsible for the Bypass Project should take following two factors into account:
- Completion of the project clearly serves public interests as it will decrease the risk of environmental pollution and risk of fires;
- A significant amount of state financial resources have already been spent on the project. Therefore, the fact that the study on commercial viability of the project has not been conducted and published before its initiation (and it should have been), should not have been a determinant to a decision on completion of the project.
We welcome the fact that there is a consensus regarding completion of the Bypass Project, however it is also very important that the project be finished in reasonable time and with maximum effectiveness, as completion of the Bypass Project will be significantly beneficial to the development of the city and the safety of its citizens. Such as:
- Transportation of explosive materials through the city center is very risky;
- Implementation of the Project can serve as a positive economic stimulus (such as creation of additional jobs) and therefore, will have a positive social effect;
- Already significant amount of financial resources have been spent on the Project.
Taking this into account, Tbilisi City Hall and the company responsible for development of the General Plan should make this project a high priority and an appropriate decision should be made in the near future. It is noteworthy that after the construction suspension for three year based on the 2013 decision, preliminary work for restarting of the construction has not finished, despite the fact that the Mayor of Tbilisi, Davit Narmania was talking about significant changes to be made to the General Plan of the city during the pre-election period of 2014 local self governance elections and appropriate steps have been announced in this election program. Such circumstances raise a suspicion that the Bypass Project is no longer a priority for the Tbilisi and central governments. Otherwise, addressing the flaws in the project during these three years and restarting of the project would have been possible, especially when taking into account that the Georgian Railway has presented three completed alternatives to Tbilisi City Hall in the beginning of 2015, a year ago.
Taking all the above-mentioned into account:
- The Bypass Project should be completed as soon as possible and connecting it with the preparation of the General Plan of the city is unacceptable. Currently there is a consensus that the freight should not be going through the city center and it is not expected that this consensus will be reviewed as part of the General Plan. Thus, it is illogical to postpone the construction of the bypass railway until the confirmation of the General Plan.
- The General Plan is important in terms of prospective use and development of the territory vacated after the removal of the current railway infrastructure. Making a decision on this issue until the approval of the General Plan would be inappropriate. When considering alternatives of usage of the vacated territory the city government should take into account needs of sustainable development and should create a high quality living environment for the citizens (most importantly, for the citizens now living in a close proximity of the railway).
- It must be taken into account, that railway transport is one of the primary forms of sustainable urban transport and can play an important role in removing pressure from the city roads and improving air quality. Therefore, it is recommended, that the government discuss a possibility of development of this type of transport, taking into account existing best practices and experience.