Public tensions have been rising over a proposed EUR 100 million tram line in the capital Riga that is proposed for EU funding.
Selina Vancane, EU funds campaigner in Latvia | 21 July 2017
Photo by Mark Fischer - CC BY-SA 2.0
In a relatively small country like Latvia, the general public is used to having its say and being able to influence things in the public realm – our opinion usually means something, and access to decision makers and communication with government officials is commonplace. Latvians, though, are not like the French, revolution is not in our DNA, and protests or strikes happen very rarely in Latvia. All of that said, public tensions have been rising over what should, on the surface, appear to be a non-controversial and publicly beneficial EU funded investment project: a proposed EUR 100 million tram line in the capital Riga.
For the most part, ease of access to decision makers and politicians in Latvia is a great thing. However, the ability of NGOs to input on issues of national importance, including where and how EU funds are spent, is all too often impaired. NGOs often involve themselves in scrutinising the planning documents and strategic decisions which are part of EU funds management, often a time-consuming process requiring expertise. Yet despite the apparent inclusiveness of these consultation processes around the realisation of EU funded projects, too many decisions are still being made behind closed doors.
And the most glaring recent – and ongoing – example of this is Riga City Council’s decision of last year to move forward with the ‘Riga tram infrastructure development’ project, to be routed to the territory of Skanste and a project which is reliant on EU structural funds. In this case civil society voices and contributions have been frozen out, and vested interests may have had reasons for doing so.
The aim of the Riga tram project , which has not yet entered the construction phase, is to introduce a route that would increase the capital’s environmentally friendly public transport rolling stock and generally promote the use of public transport in Riga. The logic is clear on paper: the inhabitants of Riga, via the deployment of EU funds, should be set to enjoy sustainable, low-carbon transport infrastructure, improved mobility and of course cleaner air. It should be a no-brainer if the plan involved building a tram link to the district in Riga where most inhabitants live – this would provide fresh incentive to keep their cars out of the city centre and to hop on the tram instead for their daily commute.
Regrettably, the opposite is true. The majority of inhabitants in Riga with which the 3.6 kilometre proposed tram line will connect are domiciled in Skanste, an area of the city which actually has a very small number of inhabitants – approximately 1,300. By comparison, the district of Purvciems has 60,000 and Plavnieki has 47,000. Indeed, a recent survey on public transport in Riga, conducted by independent experts of the urban/rail public transport civil engineering consulting firm leader ‘Systra’, concluded that Riga’s transport system could be significantly improved by building the tram line to the districts of Plavnieki and Purvciems instead.
To come back to where I started – the development of the tram project has seen a total absence of public involvement and a disappointing lack of transparency and partnership with civil society. The selection of this particular tram line route – over other alternative routes – was never discussed publicly, not even within Riga City Council’s Transport Committee. The justification for the preferred routing to Skanste has been based on a local plan for Skanste which failed to receive a final public hearing and which has no legal status. To the distress of citizens, the preferred alignment of the tram line alongside the territory of a local cemetery has also never been discussed.
Latvian civil society attempts to be involved in how EU funds are allocated have resulted, for this particular project, in requests to the responsible authorities to make the project application public. In response to various NGOs, the City Council of Riga and JSC ‘Rigas Satiksme’, the two project developers, deemed to classify the whole project application as a trade secret. Yes, in our democratic and ‘open society’, this can still happen here in Latvia!
After growing public criticism, parts of the project application were eventually published, but several important parts – for example, the most relevant justification documents providing details of the project’s technical and economic rationale – were still held from public view. Thus, not only has public debate been closed down and neutered during the planning process, but now key elements related to the project have unjustifiably been classified as ‘secret’.
It gets dirtier still. A Latvian transport industry expert, Talis Linkaits, has submitted his concerns about the potential risk of conflict of interest in the project case to the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB,) which is the leading, specialised anti-corruption authority in the country.
Linkaits referred to information provided by public broadcaster LTV that the construction company Merks had sold apartments to high-ranking officials within Riga’s municipality, including Vice Mayor Andris Ameriks, at a price significantly lower than the market price. Linkaits furter noted that the construction company Merks, together with its affiliated companies, is one of very few developers involved in the Skanste district, and a beneficiary of the public works carried out as part of the tram project. Notably, Merks’ parent company Merko Ehitus has also been involved in an anti-corruption investigatory case in Estonia.
In addition to these uncertainties and concerns, it’s become evident that the mayor of Riga City Council, Nils Ušakovs, and other officials are not presenting a fair picture in public and media discussion about the rules which guide EU funded projects – and they are even blaming the European Commission. Ušakovs has claimed that EU funds finance is only available for transport projects serving degraded areas and with a high development potential, thus there is only the Skanste line option available, otherwise Riga will lose the available funding. In fact there is no such stipulation in the Operation Programme, as has been confirmed by Commission representatives in Latvia.
After sending letters to both the European Commission national authorities, and following several meetings organised at the highest level, as well as even placing the project and its questionable value for money in the political spotlight, we have only managed to change the nature of the project a little. But, when it comes to this project, every little change is even a big thing.
For instance, in the initial stages of the project there was a plan for the tram line to cross the Great Cemetery, which was founded in 1773 and was formerly Riga’s principal cemetery. The Great Cemetery is a site of significant cultural and historical heritage in Latvia and the memorial park nowadays also serves as a recreation area. Yet the plan was to widen Senču Street in order to accommodate the tram line, which would have involved destroying parts of the cemetery. According to an assessment made by the activist group ‘Friends of Great Cemetery’, it would have been necessary to destroy historic buildings and many visible and non-visible burial sites and trees, thus making a devastating effect on the entire memorial area. Public campaigning, however, along with several meetings with different authorities, including Latvia’s Minister of Culture, has partly eliminated the risk of damage to the cemetery.
Moreover, when it comes to merging the tram line project in Senču Street so that it doesn’t damage the cemetery, there is no space for pavements and cycle lanes on the road. There was a further public outcry earlier this summer when a plan emerged to cut all the chestnut trees on Pernava Street as well as additional trees around the cemetery territory, which would leave the air of the city in even worse condition. Several flash mobs were organised as well as pickets around the trees to raise more attention. For now, no tree-cutting has taken place.
Latvia’s political parties have also jumped on the tram line project for their election campaigning, many of them actively demonstrating that they are against the project – the exception being the Saskana party, as Riga’s mayor represents this party and supports the project to Skanste.
During the election debate, one candidate Martins Bondars claimed: “Skanste tram line is a waste of money as there are no need to build such expensive infrastructure to a place where there is such a small number of habitants. There is more need for a line to Purvciems, Plavnieki and other parts of Riga where more people located. The Skanste project must be stopped!”
Bondars, however, was not elected as the mayor of Riga, and as there has been no significant change in the make-up of Riga City Council it has to be assumed for now that the project will be implemented as agreed previously. At a meeting in the Latvian parliament which I and my allies organised in order to bring the case to the attention of parliamentarians, one politician Valdis Kalnozols didn’t pull his punches: “This is a real deal! It is clear that it is very fruitful deal for someone, and it is not even someone at Riga Council”.
In this case the only thing the concerned public has been able to do is to make public noise and complain to both national and EU institutions. But the activist group ‘Friends of Great Cemetery’ is not about to give up. They are trying, step by step, to stop this wasteful and unreasonable project and are calling for the tram line to be redirected so that more people will benefit from it. We have to keep in mind too that EU money is citizens’ money, and it should work in the best interests of the people and reflect our values. All eyes are now on a pending European Commission decision on the project, which may arrive by the end of the month.
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