By Imad al-Rawashdeh (Ammonnews)- Amman – Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, meant to provide affordable and reliable transportation to millions of commuters, enters its second year of controversy after its stoppage, threatening to cost the state JD10 million in fines.
This ordeal began when the government of Dr. Marouf al-Bakhit decided to suspend the project in September 2011 after inheriting it from previous governments. It took the decision due to doubts about its benefits and the motivation behind its launch two years earlier with the blessings of the regulatory, legislative, and executive branches of power.
The BRT project is funded through a soft loan (without government guarantee and provided directly to Greater Amman Municipality) from the Agence Française de Développement [French Development Agency] (AFD) for $166 million (JD117 million). It has outlived five governments since 2009, with each cabinet changing the decision of its predecessor.
Today, the project is in a stalemate. It is stuck between the public prosecutor, who received the file last December during the former government of Aoun al-Khasawneh (October 2011 – March 2012), and an international engineering firm brought in January 2012 to review the designs and tehnicalities.
The bid for the project was received by prime minister Nader al-Thahabi in 2009. It was approved by the Audit Bureau (a public funds watchdog). But the bureau later backtracked on its original decisions in a report issued last August which included allegations of “fundamental inconsistencies in decisions related to the bidding” and considered the project “inadequate.”
The audit report opened the door for doubts concerning the project, which was put through a complicated series of auditing and re-auditing and referred from one committee to another. Finally, it was given to a specialized technical committee formed by Bakhit. It recommended bringing an external consulting firm to look into the technical aspects of the file.
This investigative report reveals how the inconsistent decisions of regulatory institutions, especially the Audit Bureau, and conflicting authorities in some public reviews led the project to be suspended throughout this period. This sudden halt threatens to cancel the loan completely and force the state to pay fines that could reach JD10 million ($14 million), according to official reports obtained by this journalist.
What is more interesting is that the government, parliament, and the Audit Bureau had previously supported the project when it was launched 2009. Now the Audit Bureau is leading the criticism against the plan.
Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) received the loan on a self-guarantee based on its financial feasibility and ability to cover costs for setting it up.The agreement allows a grace period of 18 months before repayment.
The amount of the loan is distributed as follows: $127 million for infrastructure, such as creating lanes and addressing barriers such as tunnels and bridges; $7 million for the high-tech operating system, including tickets, and around $14 million for project studies and administration. The loan was given with an upper ceiling of 6.5 percent.
The cost of the busses, estimated at $40 million, will be externally raised by the operator selected under a separate bidding process.
The financial model provided by the British company Steer Davies Gleave (SDG), commissioned by GAM to design and plan the RBT, allows for an emergency “reserve” estimated at more than $16 million.
Why does Amman need a RBT?
BRT is based on a system in which buses run on a segregated right-of-way, based on a new concept that will attract public transport users and private vehicle owners. This is based on the “final report” provided by SDG that has implemented more than 200 transport projects in 50 cities worldwide, including Arab countries, in the last 30 years.
With a capacity exceeding 120 passengers, the buses will pass every three minutes at peak hours, without being impeded by traffic jams or accidents. They will be equipped with a monitoring and driving system, a comprehensive information system including maps and electronic signs, and electronic ticket machines based on credit.
Similar projects were implemented in more than 120 countries around the world, according to the RBT Planning Guide published by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), based in Washington DC.
According to the guide, “A RBT system will typically cost 4 to 20 times less than a tram or light rail transit (LRT) system and 10 to 100 times less than a metro system.”
According to the design, the project will save 85 million kilometers of distance travelled by private vehicles and 12 million kilometers of distance travelled by taxis. The project documents claim that this will reduce carbon emission by 6.6 thousand tons annually, 280 thousand tons in the next 30 years.
It will also lead to reducing traffic congestion, according to the project website set up by GAM.
Traffic Department statistics from 2010 show that “the rate of increase of vehicles in Jordan exceeded those of population growth in 2009. While the latter was 2.2 percent, the number of vehicles increased by 8.1 percent and the drivers by 10 percent.”
The same source indicated that the “number of vehicles in Jordan, between local and foreign, is more than one million,” mostly concentrated in the capital.
The project aims to “save more than JD200 million ($280 million) annually from costs resulting from vehicle accidents, estimated at almost JD4 billion ($5.6 billion) by the Traffic Department in 2010.”
* The Amman RBT will be a 32-kilometer network containing three lanes (corridors).
* The first corridor will be from Sweileh to the station along Queen Rania Street, passing by the sports city.
* The second corridor runs from al-Muhajireen to the sports city through Princess Basma (Fifth Roundabout).
* The third goes from Middle East Square (south of the capital) to the station.
* Busses will travel at a speed of 27 kilometers per hour, covering the distances in 47 minutes.
* The project includes terminals every 500 meters, built either above or below ground depending on the location.
* Ticket prices will be 300 fils ($0.42).
* The three lanes will have a capacity to carry 6,000 passengers in each direction during morning rush hour.
* The feasibility study estimated that demand in the first year might be below the estimated capacity.
* The number of busses is estimated to be 150 at a total cost of $40 million, which will be covered by the operation and is not part of the loan.
Committees and Reports… At a Glance
The RBT went through several committees since April 2011, and two official evaluation reports were released.
The first committee was from the parliament, formed during the Bakhit government. It recommended the creation of a “specialized committee” by the government to study the file and which includes experts and representatives of the concerned ministries.
The governmental committee issued a report last August, recommending an external engineering expert to study the file.
At the same time, the Audit Bureau also reviewed the file and issued a report pointing to fundamental discrepancies in bidding and technical issues, concluding that the project is not suitable for the capital.
Based on tens of documents related to the project and several official reports, this investigation revealed several discrepancies and conflicting information as provided in each position made by authorities involved in this project. Each authority’s action is discussed below.
The Parliamentary Committee
According to official records, the committe was headed by MP Ahmad al-Otoum and held its first meeting on 24 April 2011. Less than a month later, it issued decision #8.
It decided “to stop work in the project as fast as possible and create a technical committee from several ministries, academics, and union members to study the designs before calling for new implementation bids. Knowing that GAM is highly indebted, it cannot incur more debt.”
Asked about the reasons that led the MPs to reopen the file, Otoum said “citizens were restless about the excavations on University Street and criticized the project, which led to an investigation.”
“The project’s location among buildings inside crowded areas such as University Street is unacceptable,” says Otoum. He also criticized GAM for “receiving the RBT loan under its own guarantee, which adds to its accumulated debts of more than JD400 million in 2011, according to the documents of the parliamentary commission of inquiry.”
Details about the debt provided by the donor (the French Development Agency), maintains that it provided the loan to the authority based on the project’s feasibility and ability to cover its set-up costs.
Otoum says that “GAM contracted the local consultants to a local company “Sigma Tahhan, Bushnaq and Jadara.” The technical documents provided by SDG in the 2009 bids, clearly indicates that they had chosen the local contractor, by name.
Otum’s criticism come despite several technical reports issued by specialized committees formed by the government last year (please see below), based on a recommendation from the parliament. The reports confirmed that the bidding and referral procedures had been sound.
The Parliamentary Commission and Interrogation Procedures
The parliamentary committee included members who had never been involved directly in technical matters related to similar projects, Otoum told this journalist.
Otoum believes that this is “not necessary,” especially as the file was presented to “experts from the GAM and others involved with the project”. He only mentioned one engineer who worked with GAM’s team in the first phase of the project (Queen Rania Street).
In addition, he maintained that he asked the opinion of MPs “familiar with such projects,” like MP Mamdouh al-Abadi “who is the former governor of the capital and Abdul-Rahman al-Hanaqta, who holds an engineering degree and has experience in road construction projects.”
Hanaqta declined comment when asked by this journalist saying that he is “not a member of the committee and does not have information about the file.”
But Abadi said that the commission’s work was “professional, academic, and far from any personal interests.” He said he does not remember the details of the technical committee formed by the government to review the file based on the parliamentary recommendation or those of the reports it issued last year.
Abadi said he agrees with GAM’s decision to give the project to SDG in line with a technical governmental committee that confirmed “the transparency of the bidding process.”
Dr. Samadi, the head of the project at the GAM, said the parliamentary commission “was not qualified to study the issue and it was not easy to discuss the matter by providing engineering answers to its reservations. In addition, its discussion was devoid of objectivity and its members were always digressing away from the subject.”
Otoum rejects these allegations and considers them “an attempt by GAM to defend itself.”
This journalist tried to determine the nature of the parliamentary inquiry through requesting access to its minutes of meetings through several MPs to be told they could not disclose them due to the secret nature of these recordings.
The parliamentary rules of procedures do not have any clear or explicit provisions regulating the work of such commissions, their authorities, or creation mechanisms.
The Audit Bureau…Staggering and Contradictions
On 10 August 2011, almost four months after the termination of the parliamentary inquiry, the Audit Bureau issued its report on the same case.
The report concluded that the project “in its current conditions…is not feasible, whether financially, economically, socially, or environmentally.” It recommended the “consideration of alternative transport projects in different ways, which could include the RBT..”
Comparing the bureau’s reservations to the documents and official reports of the project, it is clear that some criticisms are blatantly contradictory. The audit report says that it “noticed fundamental discrepancies in the bidding and management procedures of the project, which led to conflict of authority.”
Despite this, head of the Audit Bureau Mostafa al-Barari told this journalist last April that “the procedure that led to referring the project to the design company SDG was in the presence of a representative of the Audit Bureau. They were fine and got approved.” He said the reservations were limited to “the project’s design and routes.”
On the other hand, the decision to award the project, issued by GAM’s tendering committee on 13 April 2009, shows that the process was legal. It was open to all specialized companies across the world, through an open bid. The executive assistant for monitoring in the Audit Bureau was a member of the committee and signed the decision.
This journalist obtained other technical reports from specialized committees formed by the government to review the projects last year. They indicate that the tender procedures are “in accordance with the law and standards of fair competition, and were done according to current regulations.
Delay in the Delivery of Designs
According to the tender, SDG had to complete “all required works in a period of 12 months, starting from the date of initiation in June 2009.”
In its latest opinion on the project, the Audit Bureau sent a report to the current prime minister Fayez al-Tarawneh criticizing the fact that GAM had extended the period twice, without any fines being paid by the designer, first on 31 October 2011 and then on 31 October 2012.
On the other hand, GAM maintains that the first extension was based on additional tasks requested from the designer concerning the development of solutions that were suggested for intersections to avoid affecting traffic flow when the project is launched”. This explains why no fines were levied for delays.
As for the second extension, GAM blames the recommendations of the parliamentary commission that decided to stop the bidding and the decision of the government of Bakhit to suspend the project.
The Audit Bureau has its reservations about the bus lanes, because they “pass in the major arteries of the capital, which witness heavy traffic and are thus unsuited for the project.”
Nevertheless, the project’s documents indicate that the terms of reference for the bidding (on which the applicants based their proposals) had explained the nature of such lanes. The bureau’s representative was fully aware of this and did not have any reservations. He also put his signature – as indicated above – on the bidding decisions, which were later ratified by former prime minister Thahabi
When asked about the bureau’s belated reservations, Barari said that “the job of the bureau is limited to oversight and the problems appeared following implementation.”
When this journalist asked for further clarification, Barari referred him back to the report – which was already obtained – and decided to end the meeting without answering more questions.
The Role of the Audit Bureau
According to article 119 of the Jordanian Constitution, the “Audit Office shall be set up by law for controlling the State’s revenues, its expenses and the manner of expenditure.” Law no.28 of 1952 was later issued to set up the Bureau.
According to Article 5 [law no. 28], “The Audit Bureau shall be managed by a Director who shall be appointed by a Royal Decree upon the recommendation of the Council of Ministers, and whereby the appointment shall be notified to the Lower House of Parliament at its first ordinary session. He shall not be dismissed, transferred, sent to retirement, or sanctioned except through a decision of the aforementioned parliament if it was in session or the approval of the king based on the recommendation of the council of ministers, if the parliament was not in session. In this case, the prime minister shall inform the parliament in session of the decisions taken with the necessary explanations. The internal transactions are overseen by the prime minister’s office.”
Al-Sahafa Tunnel and the Sports City
In its next report, the Audit Bureau had reservations. It said that “the design agreement, signed with the English company which planned the project, did not clarify the means or mechanisms for dealing with several barriers facing the project, such as bridges, tunnels, traffic lights, and intersections, namely the Sports City Bridge and the al-Sahafa Tunnel.”
The investigation revealed that despite GAM’s not reaching a final version for the design of these intersections by the time the report was released, they had several ideas about solutions, their implementation, and cost estimates.
This was also confirmed by design reports. They show that GAM had a clear idea about dealing with al-Sahafa intersection since 2009. It proposed eight traffic solutions with a cost estimate for al-Sahafa intersection and al-Madina roundabout at a cost of JD7 million for the former and JD14 million for the latter.
GAM also proposed a “design draft” for the Sports City bridge and al-Sahafa tunnel one year before the Audit Bureau’s report. It published several detailed engineering solutions to those “barriers” on the first page of the independent al-Arab al-Youm newspaper in September 2010.
Added to that, governmental reviews of the project indicated that GAM had “eight alternatives for the RBT on each of al-Madina roundabout and al-Sahafa tunnel, where the best alternative was chosen for each of them.”
The Governmental Committee
A few days following the release of the Audit Bureau’s report in August 2011, another report was issued by a governmental technical/financial committee. It was recommended by the parliamentary commission mentioned above to study the feasibility of the project.
According to the memorandum concerning its formation, the committee included representatives of two public universities, the Jordan Engineers Association and the Union for Construction Contractors, in addition to several ministries. It also included members from GAM, which was criticized by the Audit Bureau in a letter sent to current prime minister Tarawneh last May.
The bureau said that the GAM representative was in the financial and technical committee, although “he was not nominated to the financial committee.” It considered this to be one of the violations in the project.
But contrary to the bureau’s information, a letter from the head of the governmental committee, public works minister Yahya al-Kasbi (no.63/1 on 6/7/2011) said that GAM’s presence in the audit conducted by the technical and financial committees was based on the recommendation of the government.
Concerning whether it was appropriate for GAM to be present in the committee studying the project and its impact on the neutrality of the report, Samadi replied that the goal of the committee was to ensure the technical and financial soundness of the procedures. This requires that GAM be present in those committees, being the supervising and implementing side of the project, offering explanations for each technical and financial step taken so far.
The Governmental Technical Committee: Reports and Sub-Reports
Minister Kasbi, the head of this committee, said that “GAM did not have clear solutions to some of the barriers, such as al-Sahafa tunnel” as per the study they provided to his committee. He stressed that he is “not completely against the idea, but rejects the current shape of the project.”
A governmental source familiar with the file, who preferred to remain anonymous, told this journalist that “Kasbi’s recommendations and proposals to the council of ministers on this project contradicted completely the technical and financial sub-reports of the committee he headed to give him to a final recommendation concerning RBT”.
While Kasbi insisted on “cancelling” the project in its entirety during a session of the cabinet, “the sub-reports were completely positive, except for some marginal remarks but without any objections.”
The source said that due to the minister’s objections, the cabinet decided on a “compromise” in the language of the final report that recommended “referring the project to an external auditor” in June 2011.
Kasbi denies that the government had recommended the cancellation of the project.
The author of this report obtained copies of these “sub-reports” to compare to the final report. They confirmed the statements of the aforementioned governmental source, which will be discussed below.
The Sub-Reports of the Governmental Committee Confirms the Soundness of the Financial and Technical Procedures
The final technical report from the government – published in various media and obtained by the author – had based its information and conclusions on sub-reports, as indicated in official correspondences.
Comparing the sub-reports with the final documents shows a clear discrepancy in language and conclusion, although they are meant to be complementary.
The final report from the government was brief. It maintained that on the technical side, “GAM had not completed all the detailed studies of the project, concerning the intersections and stops, by the time of bidding.”
But the sub-reports considered, in detail, that GAM’s studies “elaborated on the analysis of lanes, services, and designs…taking into consideration the traffic situation, land use, pedestrian flow, parking, and implementation costs. The project will not affect anything on both sides of the street, with the exception of very limited land acquisition. Shop owners and other investors along the street will not be affected.”
The sub-reports also elaborated on the question of intersections. They maintained that design proposals “covered many options for main intersections and conducted detailed studies of traffic to reach the appropriate solutions, especially at al-Sahafa tunnel, al-Madina roundabout, and the terminal’s complex.”
On the financial side, the final report of the government maintained that “the amounts drawn and disbursed from the loan, up to the date of the report, conform with the plan and mechanisms of expenditure, in accordance with the signed contracts.”
It concluded that “no implementation procedures should be initiated on the ground before finalizing all the necessary studies” and recommended “an engineering and traffic audit of the previous studies to look into the situation of the roads and intersections included in the project.”
The sub-report said that “bidding procedures conformed with the law and standards of fair competition, according to applicable procedures. GAM’s negotiations of the loan were professional and it received favorable terms for the loan in comparison with similar funding.”
It concluded that “the procedures for deciding on the agreement was according to legal procedures and GAM received the approval of its council, the council of ministers, and the specialized committees.”
This journalist presented these “obvious contradictions” to Ministre Kasbi, head of the overall committee. He denied the existence of any contradiction, saying that the whole disagreement is because “GAM did not complete the final designs.”
The ministry’s under-secretary, Sami Halasa – who was present at the meeting with the minister – said that “the preliminary designs are useful for simple intersections. But intersections like the sports city and al-Sahafa are so complicated that the costs will rise if the final designs were not available prior to implementation.”
Nevertheless, documents obtained from the designer contain estimated costs for al-Sahafa intersection and al-Madina roundabout..
GAM’s head of transport Ayman Samadi, believes that this shows that the designer was aware of the complications of the traffic solutions at those two intersections.
Former transport minister Muhannad al-Qoudah, disagrees.
Qoudah, who was still minister when Bakhit decided to create a governmental committee to evaluate the project, was present during the cabinet discussion of this project. He says that not completing the plans in many transport projects “is normal and does not mean the lack of solutions.”
He said the transport ministry opened bidding for a rail project before the stations were designed.
Amounts Withdrawn and Spent from the Load
GAM made one withdrawal from the loan for the amount of $14 million (around JD10 million) to cover the bidding for the first and second phase of the project. The balance up to the latest documentation in the governmental auditing committee on 7 July 2011, stands at around JD8.871 million.
Inaccurate Technical Opinions
Reservations on the RBT did not only come from the government. Several GAM officials and engineers share the same opinion.
Former GAM Director of Traffic Khaled Hadadine criticizes the RBT in a study which was partially published in al-Ghad independent newspaper in 2011. He criticized some technical aspects retroactively, although he was fully aware of them prior to the bidding and commencement of implementation.
The study says that project normally serves the suburbs. In Amman, it is being implemented in the main arteries of the city and as a primary means of transport.
Based on his study, RBT “was not the main system implemented in cities around the world, with a few exceptions such as Bogota in Colombia, and Curitiba in Brazil.”
This is in contradiction to the ITDP guide, mentioned above, considered an international reference on the issue.
The guide indicates that this method is used primarily because “population densities are generally highest near major arterials.”
This is confirmed by a simple review of the projects implemented in several cities in China, Amsterdam, Dublin, and Jakarta, where RBT was established in city centers and congested areas.
This journalist interviewed University of Applied Sicneces Professor Shaker Mahadin, who advocates the cancellation of the system.
Mahadin’s reservations are not very different from those proposed by several people interviewed. But he indicated a seemingly new “fault” in the project.
He speaks about the high number of stops (39 stops) compared to its total length (32 kilometers), making it a “slow bus…that should be cancelled,” as he puts it.
But many similar projects around the world have a very high number of stops compared to the total length.
In China, for example, the length of the RBT is 54 kilometers, while the number of stops is 59. In Paris, it is 19 kilometers with 32 stops. In Jakarta it reaches 194 stops for 134 kilometers.
The Designing Company
Steer Davies Gleave (SDG) is a UK-based company specializing in transport systems and has implemented more than 200 transport projects in 50 countries, namely the RBT systems in Canada, Dublin, Bogota, and Lagos (Nigeria).
It prepared the plans for transport in London in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. It was also appointed by the Saudi government to draft a strategic plan for transport inside Mecca. It is also drafting a plan for Abu Dhabi (UAE), stretching over a 30-year period to solve transport and congestion problems.
It received more than eight awards in the last 30 years, namely the Royal Town Planning Institute Award in the UK and a Scottish transportation award.
Sub-Reports Sound the Alarm
The technical sub-report issued by the governmental committee explains “the repercussions of stopping the current contracts for the projects” in 11 detailed points. It said GAM will lose JD10 million if it stops the project.
GAM will have to pay for the cost of cancelling the first phase which amounts to JD2.1 million ($2.94 million).
If the second phase is stopped, it will have to “pay between 10 to 15 percent of the total contract as cancellation fee to the contractor, in addition to the costs incurred by the contractor, and lost profit.” This is estimated by GAM at around JD8 million ($11.2 million).
The report warns that GAM will “lose the difference in the low and attractive costs provided by the contractors due to their competition in the current crisis, in addition to losses in the national economy related to financial and social benefits of employing contractors and the workforce.”
It concludes by warning that the cancellation of the project “will force GAM to find alternative funding sources, in light of the global economic crisis, for other projects such as light rail which will be more expensive, and whose installation and operational costs are not covered and usually depend on support from governments.”
The RBT planning guide shows that the system costs between 4 and 20 times less than LRT.
The Cover of the External Audit: A Conflict of Interests
Every time the RBT project passes through a committee which fails to prove allegations of corruption, it is sent to another committee to be re-audited and re-evaluated. The last of those committees was governmental, formed by former PM Marouf Bakhit. It floated a $100,000 tender for engineering companies to study the project.
In January 2012, the government decided to start the bidding process. But the main surprise was that out of the six companies which were called to evaluate the designs – according to official records obtained by the author – some had competed for the RBT three years ago. This is a “conflict of interest,” according to professor Samadi.
Almost one year after being suspended, the government referred the project to an external engineering expert to conduct a technical audit, six months after announcing the bids.
According to statements by transport minister Kasbi, the expert should present the result of its audit in September 2012.
In the meantime, it seems that the project will be susceptible to the loan being rescinded and the state, represented by GAM, being fined millions of dinars, as indicated earlier.
According to the agreement with the AFD, “halting the project or stopping it for any reason for more than six months, leads to the automatic cancellation of the loan by the donor and GAM will incur all the costs.”
This journalist contacted the former Mayor of Amman, Omar al-Maani (2006-2010) who promoted the system as a solution to traffic congestion. But he said he preferred to comment after legal investigations into the file are completed.