The way out of transport deadlock: the case for a holistic transport strategy in Georgia
At the beginning of the New Year, attentions in Georgia turned to Rustavi amid a series of protests over price increases on the Rustavi-Tbilisi mini-bus by 50 tetri (0.19 USD): a significant increase for Georgian workers who commute into the capital everyday. The situation was further aggravated when the Mayor of Rustavi, Irakli Tabaghua, along with a group of protestors, removed the notice of the new tariff and replaced it with the old tariff note, which caused a confrontation between the passengers and drivers. Incidentally, drivers had informed the Rustavi City Hall a month earlier of their intention to increase the tariff in the new year. However, their application was rejected.
This sort of situation is unfortunately part of the daily reality for Georgian municipalities in dealing with public transport services. Increasing levels of decentralization mean that municipalities have little control over regulating public transport, monitoring its safety, and ensuring a good quality of service. As a result, they often find themselves at the mercy of private transport providers and drivers’ wills.
In demographic terms, Rustavi is one of the Georgia’s fastest growing cities. Large numbers of the population travel to Tbilisi daily for work or education and the main mode of transport, if not by private car, is by mini-bus. There is also a train that runs daily but the station and waiting hall are both derelict, and so the train is rarely used. One question to ask may be why the Railway Department has not focused on the re-development of the rail station when the demand for transport between Rustavi and Tbilisi increases every day? In my opinion, the answer is simple, Georgia lacks an adequate a transport policy and the government’s deregulation plan has neglected the perspective of developing regions, towns and small-populated areas.
Indeed, municipalities in Georgia have very little budgetary support in order to renew their transport infrastructure and vehicle fleets. This also forces them to focus their attentions narrowly on gathering ticket revenues and transport supervision, but keeping tickets affordable is a crucial issue. Most have neither short nor long-term development plans for urban transport, including the expansion of non-motorized transport services, and there is currently no legislative requirement or incentive in place to develop such plans from the central government. This makes it difficult to attract additional financial resources or increase the technical competence of local staff meaning that municipalities, like Rustavi, are not able to meet the transport needs of their population in terms of ensuring service quality.
If we want to solve these problems, we need to remove institutional and financial barriers and increase the opportunities for municipalities to contribute to transport-related decision-making. The example of Rustavi has once again shown us that there is a lack of cooperation between city- and central authorities. There needs to be a joint mission and cooperation in order to create an efficient public transport system and attract financing. Municipalities largely rely on the central government for funds with only 10% of their annual budget coming from their own revenues, including local taxes, charges and fees received from permits. At the same time, less than 30% of the Georgian population own a private car, the rest rely on public transport services, so they need to be well financed and well connected.
So is there a way out of this transport deadlock? Yes. In addition to improving highways, financial institutions, donors, and budget financing need to focus on improving inter-city and intra-city mobility by restoring the outdated rail infrastructure, improving public transport, and promoting non-motorized services. Addressing transport policy holistically and removing the barriers to mobility and accessibility in this way also has the potential to bring wider economic benefits. As such, Georgia needs to urgently look at its long-term plans for cities and towns and integrate transport and mobility planning with the country’s overall development strategy.
In Rustavi, the re-development of the railway station and building Bus-Rapid-Transit corridors from Tbilisi to Rustavi could help solve the problems they are facing. This could be financed through a special fund for local governments, derived from fuel and vehicle taxes, for transport development projects. On a national level, the Government needs to approve the National Urban Transport Strategy and Policy Framework, which will improve access and mobility in the Georgia’s urban centres. This in turn will help municipalities in developing their own sustainable funding sources for the development of safe and accessible road infrastructure and public transport, through revenues from parking, road fines and other local activities. A coordinated strategy will also help deal with problems caused by duplicated routes, service deficiencies, vehicle shortages, and variable service prices. If it is ignored, we, as consumers, companies, and private providers, are doomed to experience more conflicts like in Rustavi.