TBY talks to Bilal S. Hamad, Mayor and President of the Municipal Council of Beirut, on what makes Beirut so attractive and solving the traffic problem.

What efforts is the Municipal Council taking to restore Beirut's reputation and attract more foreign visitors?

First of all, we shall be publishing a book about what we have achieved up to date, what we are trying to achieve, and what the plans are for the future. People still think of Beirut as a magical city for tourism. It is a beautiful city in terms of both modernization and heritage. Since I became Mayor, the Council set up huge infrastructure projects to upgrade the storm water and waste water systems so that Beirut's streets will never flood with storm or rainwater. Beirut is beautiful by nature with great weather, excellent restaurants, good nightlife, and modern highways and streets—tourists just love it. This is why it was recently voted among the seven wonder cities of the world. We invest $20 million a year on different maintenance contracts including infrastructure systems, pavements, sidewalks, lighting, and green spaces. Moreover, and since I became Mayor, the maintenance of downtown Beirut has become the responsibility of the Municipality. Our city's infrastructure endures considerable wear and tear as one-third of Lebanon's population resides in Beirut. It is a city of one million cars, and our streets, highways, and sidewalks are abused. That is why we always have to keep up with maintenance. I like my city to be an image of a beautiful modern city with a strong heritage, which is a place for both visitors and the Lebanese people to enjoy visiting and investing in.

What is the importance of public-private partnerships (PPP) for the sustainable development of Beirut?

The role of PPPs is tremendous. Many industry leaders have come together to invest in Beirut's future, and have donated to the city. This is one important route where we can bridge over the routine of bid rounds and the bureaucracy of the public sector. We approve donations of the private sector as long as they are unconditional. One example of successful PPP stories is the Rene Muawwad (Sanayeh) garden, where we partnered with Zeina Majdalani, the landscape designer, to put our dreams and ideas on paper and, with Azadea, to execute the works. Look at the garden today; it is one of the most beautiful and well-maintained areas in the country. The Council is also partnering with St. Joseph University to start the rehabilitation of the St. Nicolas garden facing St. Nicolas church in Achrafieh. Another gift to Beirut was Horsh Beirut Master Plan, provided by Raed Abillamaa. This project will include an amphitheater, a jogging track, biking track, bathrooms, benches, and other facilities. Apave is preparing the tender documents for us so that we can start the bidding process to commission a private firm for the execution of the master plan as well as conducting the management, maintenance, and the security of the 300,000 sqm lung of Beirut. It is our ambition to finish the works and have the Horsh open to the public in 2016. Other PPP projects include the designs of Sioufi and Karantina gardens. The execution of rehabilitation works on these two gardens will hopefully start in 2015.

“The role of PPPs is tremendous."

Beirut is no stranger to challenges related to traffic congestion and the lack of parking spaces. How does the Municipality work to boost the efficiency of the urban transport system and reduce traffic congestion?

There are three main reasons for traffic jams in Beirut. First is the lack of a decent and punctual public transport system. Beirut receives more than 250,000 cars every morning and these cars leave in the evening. That is why there are traffic jams every morning at the 12 entrances to Beirut, and then every evening at all of the exits from Beirut. Everybody wants to come in his or her car to Beirut for work or leisure. The average number of people in each car on the streets of Beirut is around 1.5. This is completely unacceptable. If we have a public transport system this will be cut in half. The City has commissioned Team Company, in cooperation with Light Rail Transit Consultants (LRTC) to perform executive studies and to submit a tender file to introduce public transport in the Beirut. The scope of work shall include all the preparatory planning and engineering studies, systems evaluation, sketch designs, and feasibility studies required to launch a design build operation maintain (DBOM) tender for implementing a multimodal public transport system in Beirut. Tender Documents for launching the DBOM tender are the major output that will include the qualifications and conditions to be met by the qualified tenderers. The government needs to construct mega parking lots on the outskirts of Beirut where people can park like everywhere else in the world. Then people can take a bus to enter the city. The executed study shall be compatible with plans to expand public transport to all of greater Beirut. Hopefully, the studies shall be finalized and bidding launched early in 2016. The second reason for traffic congestion on the streets of Beirut is illegal parking. People are double parking and triple parking because we do not have severe law enforcement. If there is no law enforcement, you cannot have order in the city. On top of that there are a huge number of illegal buses and vans on the streets of Beirut from all over the country. To solve the parking crisis in the city, the Council has launched several projects including a huge parking space under the current Municipality stadium in Tarik Jdideh, a parking structure under the Manara sidewalk facing the Ain Mraisseh mosque, parking spaces under a few gardens in Beirut, and parking spaces under a few public schools. One huge project whose studies are completed is the 1,600-car parking structure under Martyr's square in downtown Beirut. A beautiful landscaped area will be established above the parking facilities. Bidding on a BOT basis will soon be launched. We are working on expropriating several lots all over the city to have multi-story parking buildings and this is taking a lot of time due to bureaucracy in the public sector.

© The Business Year - March 2015