Money for nothing, or how Stara Zagora runs a project for BGN 14.7 million

The project for the modernization and development of sustainable urban transport in Stara Zagora brought to light vicious practices in the absorption of EU funds from the operational programs

The “unique” double circular movement in Stara Zagora, paid with funds from “Regional Development” Operational programme.
Photo: www.starazagora.bg

Stara Zagora together with Plovdiv, Varna, Rousse and Pleven absorb BGN 196 million from the EU Regional Development Operational Program for modernization of urban transport. The funds are allocated between them on the basis of the number of inhabitants, the population that uses public transport and the tourist flow.

At the beginning of 2018, in our town of linden trees, the second phase started of the implementation of the project “Modernization and Development of Sustainable Urban Transport”, funded with 14 million leva by EU grant.

How things really look after the implementation of the project phases?

In early February the reconstruction and the extension of railway overpass was completed along “Patriarch Evtimii” Blvd. The cost of the construction of the two new circular intersections, the repair, the reconstruction and the expansion of the three bridge facilities is a little over BGN 5 mln, VAT incl., and the contractor of the project is the “Trace Group Hold” Consortium.

During one year of construction works, the citizens of Stara Zagora had to swallow the inconvenience of walking every day tens of kilometers to get to their jobs, because the bridge is the only facility connecting the city with the industrial zone and the Trakia motorway and the entire traffic of buses with workers for the Maritsa East Energy Complex is also passing through it. On February 3rd, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov arrived in Stara Zagora to open the renovated site. But instead of cutting the ribbon, visibly nervous, he hurried to say a few words to the citizens and the media. And he left, booed by a group of Stara Zagora’s citizens that were dissatisfied with the policy of the government.

What turned out after the study of the factual implementation of the project?

First, that the railwayoverpass is commissioned without Act 16.

This was also confirmed by Miroslava Shopova – the Project Manager from the Municipality, and Dipl.Eng. Penka Marinova – acting Head of Regional Construction Supervision Directorate. There was no one to answer to my questions why and on what arguments’ basis the Municipality of Stara Zagora did not observe the requirement of the law and allowed the traffic on the bridge and why the regional directorate didn’t fulfill its obligations for construction supervision? I will only recall that, similarly, the road near the defile “Iskar Gorge” was used for two years, where 13 people died in a severe car accident.

Problems were also found with the bus lanes because with them the paved road on the bridge was not expanded but narrowed.

The bus lanes are provided-for in the project and they must exist – at least in the five-year warranty period. Otherwise there is a risk that the operational program will sanction the municipality as a beneficiary of the project. Searching a way-out of the situation, the bus lanes initially delineated by a continuous line have been replaced with such with broken lines, which in practice eliminated them. Miroslava Shopova said that the designer would look for a compromise option, which would allow passing of cars along the bus lanes in peak hours. However, this is not possible from law point of view. Moreover, their purpose is to ensure the rapid movement of public transport in peak hours of traffic, which is the main advantage of public transport to be preferred by the citizens. However, if the bus lanes start and end within a facility with total length of 500 m rather than continue in both directions of the road, the question is why the lanes are needed at all?

I decided to look for the opinion of the designer – Dipl. Eng. Kalin Kalchev from the Sofia company registerd under the Law on Obligations and Contracts – “Urban Renovation – Stara Zagora”, but after a few deviations of my invitation for conversation, finally I didn’t manage to talk with him.

During the construction works, the overpass is not fortified from beneath.

Mrs. Miroslava Shopova confirmed this fact but pointed out that according to the designers there is no problem the facility to be operated as in its current state. According to her, the aditional reinforcement would require the opinion from National Railway Infrastructure Company, increased funding, special materials and more time. However, the bridge is safe, says the project manager.

Traffic difficulties are created also by the two new circular intersections.

They connect the east-west traffic along “Slavyanski” Blvd with “Patriarh Evtimii” Blvd and are built on both sides under the bridge at a distance less than 50 m. It turned out yet after their opening that for the buses and the vehicles with large overall dimensions it is hard to enter the narrow lanes of the intersections. According to architect Vesselin Berov, with their construction, the General Development Plan of Stara Zagora has been violated and in this plan it is stipulated that “Slavyanski” Blvd shall be transformed into an urban speed lane. Therefore, instead of circular intersections, the construction of four lanes along the boulevard and the installation of smart traffic lights would offer a much better and workable solution, the architect said. A similar opinion was expressed by another expert – Dipl. Eng. Zahari Stamboliev, who said there are no such circular intersections in Bulgaria.

I will go a few years back to the first phase of the project when the entire old and depreciated bus and trolley fleet of the city was replaced. Then the Polish “Solaris” won the public procurements under the Public Procurement Act (PPA) for the delivery of buses in all five cities participating in the project. And Stara Zagora became famous for paying for them unit price of 269 thousand euros (or 520 thousand leva) – the highest in the country. At the same time, the companies removed from the tender in Stara Zagora were admitted to Sofia and they offered prices between 160 and 220 thousand leva lower than those paid by our Municipality governed by the mayor Zhivko Todorov. In a publication dated October 7, 2015, the “Off News” site compares in details the bus deals in Sofia and Stara Zagora.

Here it is the time to recall that the Sofia Consortium “Disk Tradebus” has appealed to the Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC) the decision No 1519/20.12.2013 of the Manager of the company “Bus and Trolleybus Services” for selection of a contractor in the procedure for awarding of public procurement contract for delivery of 14 new trolleybuses – part of the first phase of the project “Modernization and Development of Sustainable Urban Transport” in Stara Zagora. The CPC repealed as unlawful the contested decision and ordered the continuation of the procedure from the stage of consideration, evaluation and ranking of the offers. But instead of resuming the procedure, the procedure was suspended and after a while a new public procurement was announced. Then, the company “Solaris Bus & Coach” was included in the tender (this company didn’t participate in the first PPA order) and won the tender. Thus, in practice, all 50 buses and 22 trolleybuses in the city were purchased from the Polish company without the five articulated buses supplied by the Czech company SOR Libhavi, a slightly higher class vehicles. Under the project for renovation of the fleet in Varna, Burgas, Pleven and Stara Zagora, 100 Skoda Solaris trolley buses were purchased from the Solaris Company at a total price of BGN 93 million, VAT excl., with financing from the Operational Program “Environment”.

Even before the expiration of the warranty period, the 50 buses have started to show some defects, admitted Dipl. Eng. Avdzhiev.

This has forced “Solaris” to replace the turbochargers on 45 buses as well as to change the supplier company and to increase by half an year their warranty until mid-2019. The Manager of the municipal ”Bus and Trolleybus Services” company did not deny that there are also problems with their gearboxes, but in his opinion this is normal, after a certain mileage, for each brand. The buses, overpraised as the best in Bulgaria, proved to use 42 liters of diesel per 100 km, while in the parameters of the deal the Polish company has set much lower fuel consumption.

Are the objectives, set out in the project, fulfilled, at least as regards the stages already completed in its first and second phases?

The replacement of the bus and trolleybus fleet should have a positive effect on the quality of the atmospheric air. Such an assessment, however, has not been made and could not be objective in the presence of only one automatic station located in the so-called “Green wedge” – the most airy spot in the town. Despite the fact that in the last year Stara Zagora was not among the often mentioned cities in excess of PMF (fine particulate matter) standards, the reference for December 2018 and January 2019 shows that exceedances of the norms for this indicator in Stara Zagora are reported in 11 days, and in a few days the station has not worked at all.

No other project goals have been achieved

For example, the public transport should become attractive to citizens and more often used by them. According to Dipl. Eng. Avdzhiev, the flow of passengers who have passed through public transport not only has increased, but on the contrary – it has decreased.

The traffic and the congestions in peak hours are not reduced. The situation is complicated by the lack of enough parking spaces in the central part of the city and the poor transport scheme of Stara Zagora. Which in practice means that there is no improved living environment in the city.

The bicycle lanes, made and destroyed several times and with unattractive routes for the cyclists, are not fully used.

Also, in recent years, the financial results of the Municipal Company “Bus and Trolleybus” in Stara Zagora have deteriorated.

Thus, for the year 2017, the company’s revenue declined by almost 6 percent compared to the same period of the previous year and the costs increased by more than 2 percent. By the end of September 2018, the loss of the company had already reached BGN 1,500,000, almost double that in 2017.

 

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