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Brawling over the Underground

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

24 Jan 2011 06:09Comments
ghalibaf-ahmadinejad-1.jpgTehran public transportation at center of national political wrangle.

[ analysis ] The rivalry between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has turned Tehran's public transportation into a battlefield with domestic and international implications.

Tehran is a beast of a city, sprawling over an area as large as 300 square miles (800 sq km). To the west is Karaj, once a hub of agricultural activities -- most of its 1.5 million inhabitants who work now do so in Tehran. There are more towns and cities to the southwest, south, east, and north whose residents commute to Tehran workplaces daily. It is estimated that 13.7 million people reside in the Tehran metropolitan region. This makes it one of the globe's densest urban areas, ranking 16th in the world with an average of more than 28,000 people per square mile (11,000 per sq km). It is no wonder that getting around the city is a challenge of herculean magnitude.

Tehranis use anything: from personal cars to motorcycles, from public buses to the metro. Tehran's streets and highways can effectively accommodate about 750,000 automobiles, but they must handle an estimated 3.5 million. To this, add 2.5 to 3 million motorcycles, many of them employed as delivery vehicles. One of the most frightful sights in Tehran is that of a motorcycle with a couple of televisions strapped behind the driver, weaving its way through a crowded boulevard. The traffic -- considered the second worst in the region, next only to Cairo's -- can be infuriating. On-time arrivals are rare.

Both pre- and post-revolutionary governments realized the need for a mass transportation system in Tehran. There was heavy investment, particularly toward the construction of an underground rail network for the capital. Like many other major projects, the progress of the Tehran metro was subject to national events. Although construction began in the late 1970s, the first line did not become operational until 2000. Its opening was celebrated as a national achievement and a signal success for the regime's economic development plans. The political significance of Tehran's metro was not lost on anyone: Its CEO was none other than Mohsen Hashemi, the oldest son of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, nemesis of Ahmadinejad's.

Ahmadinejad is famous for many claims, and the one field that he considers himself particularly expert in is transportation. He holds a doctoral degree in traffic from the Iran University of Science and Technology, where he also lectured as a faculty member. Upon becoming the mayor of Tehran in 2003, he advocated a monorail system for the capital. The idea was heavily criticized by the media and transportation experts. Despite the opposition, Ahmadinejad shifted funding from the metro to his pet project. In a sign of future political fights, on the day he registered as a presidential candidate in 2005 he fired Mohsen Hashemi. Although Hashemi was immediately reinstated, there was little doubt of the bad blood between the new president and Tehran's metro.

When Ahmadinejad departed the municipal government for the presidential palace, Tehran's city council elected Ghalibaf, another presidential hopeful, as his successor. Ghalibaf, a former general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had been commander of the Guard air force as well as commander in chief of the national police. His success in carrying out numerous projects in Tehran has made him the favorite candidate of many conservative groups as well as some technocrats for the next presidential election. This has hardly endeared him to Ahmadinejad and the president's associates. Ahmadinejad never forgets that he was a virtually unknown administrator before he became Tehran mayor. He knows the political capital that can be gained by running the city, and he wants to limit the acclaim Ghalibaf garners. Tehran's metro system is the central arena for this political contest.

Following Ahmadinejad's lead, government's agencies have found excuse after excuse to deny resources to the metro. The government's lack of cooperation prompted an angry open letter from Ghalibaf to the president in 2009. The mayor reminded Ahmadinejad that there had not been any new purchases of equipment for the rail system despite its steadily growing usage. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

Despite the pressure from the mayor and the increasing demand for public transportation following the recent subsidy cuts, the government allocated no new resources to the metro. Ahmadinejad's administration even did not even disburse the two billion dollars allocated to the system by the Majles, Iran's parliament. The law approving the allocation was thwarted by the president's allies in the Guardian Council. It was then sent to the Expediency Council, where it was approved. The Majles demanded the funds' release. Ahmadinejad responded, "First, let's see how they spent what has been allocated in the past." He threatened that the government would "take away the metro from the municipality and run it ourselves." Referring to Mohsen Hasemi, he added, "Of course, its manager should go." In a rare display of constitutional authority, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani exercised his prerogative to issue an official mandate for the funds. His orders were not obeyed.

When last fall, Tehran suffocated from high levels of air pollution for two months, Majles deputies revived the issue of the two billion dollars. Last week, legislators questioned Finance Minister Shamseddin Hosseini on why the funds allocated for the metro had not been disbursed. His response astonished every one. Hosseini declared, "No money is left in the oil revenue savings account." Since 2005, Iran has earned 300 billion dollars in oil revenues. Ali Motahari, who initiated the inquiry, promised he would bring the president to the Majles to explain what had happened.

Despite this ongoing political wrangle, the expansion of Tehran's metro has continued. Just last year, 48 miles (77 km) of urban railways were added to the existing 99 miles (159 km). Passenger trips for the year reached an unprecedented 459 million. This was in addition to the bus rapid transit (BRT) system introduced in 2007 to serve as a complement to the existing public transportation network. The BRT now serves 1.4 million passengers daily. The Ahmadinejad administration, though reluctant to fund the system, was only too eager to share the glory. A spokesman told reporters, "Without the government's assistance, Tehran's metro system would not have been this successful."

Beyond the domestic political scene, the improvement of Tehran's public transportation has won international attention. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a Washington-based NGO, has nominated Tehran alongside Guangzhou (China), León (Mexico), Lima (Peru), and Nantes (France) for its Sustainable Transport Award. According to the ITDP, "Tehran stands out as a model city in the region for its aggressive policy to expand and implement new mass transit options. The city has developed a comprehensive public transport policy, which is embedded into the city's vision of improving quality of life by having [an] integrated, available, safe, easy, comfortable and clean transportation system, delivered within limited resources." The group estimates that "passengers received a 24% and 42% time savings respectively on their trips from what they were using before." Ghalibaf was invited to attend the January 24 award ceremony in Washington, D.C., an invitation many believe Ahmadinejad craves.

For now, Ghalibaf is barred from traveling to Washington by Iran's Foreign Ministry. The prohibition also includes other municipal officials. As matters stand, no one will represent the city of Tehran at the ceremony, a rare international recognition of Iranians' development efforts. Ghalibaf has been reacting to the news gracefully. Asked his opinion of what lies behind the travel prohibition, he told reporters, "Please do not politicize this. Let's take pride in the fact that despite the difficulties, Tehran is nominated and our achievements have been recognized." The Foreign Ministry has offered no reason for the move, but it is not difficult to comprehend. The president does not want the mayor to outshine him. Still, this recognition of Ghalibaf's achievement may lead to exactly that.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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