The National - News
Half of traffic lights in Beirut stop working
▶ Maintenance of the Lebanese capital’s traffic lights stopped in May as local institutions fight over revenue
Half of Beirut’s traffic lights stopped working in the past two months, increasing the number of fatal car accidents and heightening the sense of prevailing doom in cash-strapped Lebanon.
Figures from Lebanon’s traffic management centre showed there were 33 fatalities caused by car accidents in the country in June. This is a 120 per cent increase compared with April, when traffic lights in Beirut still worked.
The failure is being caused by a struggle between Beirut Municipality and the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority. The two bodies are fighting for control of Beirut’s parking meters, which generate about $6 million (Dh22m) a year in revenue.
For more than a decade, the TVMA used part of this sum to maintain Beirut’s traffic lights. But because of the disagreement with the municipality, which believes it should receive the profits generated from the city’s parking meters, the money stopped being collected late last year. There was soon no money left to pay Duncan-Nead, the American-Lebanese joint venture in charge of maintaining the traffic lights.
On May 1, its contract was not renewed. Since then, about half of greater Beirut’s hundreds of traffic lights went dark because of the lack of maintenance, said company manager Chafic Sinno.
This caused an increase in accidents. Figures from the Internal Security Forces show that the number of car accidents in the country went up by 74 per cent and injuries increased by 76 per cent between April and June.
“We do not have the numbers for Beirut, but there is no way that numbers would have increased that much if it wasn’t for the effect of traffic lights,” TMC manager Jean El Dabagh told The National.
Many Lebanese expressed surprise and sadness on social media at seeing normally bustling streets closed after sunset.
The breakdown of Beirut’s traffic lights also brought back harrowing memories of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.
Elie Helou, an engineer at the Council for Development and Reconstruction, a public body that oversees most of Lebanon’s infrastructure development projects, said that when traffic lights were installed in 2008, many people hailed their return as historic.
“We had [traffic] lights prior to the war, but they were dismantled or demolished,” he told The National.
The construction of traffic lights was financed by a 2003 World Bank loan that included several big infrastructure projects and was worth more than $100m, according to Mr Helou.
At the time, the Beirut Municipality and the TVMA signed an agreement in which it is stated that the latter would “pay for the operation, development, and maintenance expenses of the parking meters”.
The deal also said the traffic management body would pay to maintain the traffic lights, and deposit the rest of the money in Beirut Municipality’s treasury.
The municipality refused to renew the agreement in 2010, because it said that it never received the money it was due from the traffic management authority.
“We sent them many letters asking why they were not sending us the profits,” said Ghassan Elias, an engineer at the municipality.
“We received no answer. We can’t continue like this. We’ve lost millions.”
The TVMA points to the fact that the agreement specifies that this payment system would be put in place only “after repayment of the designated loan for these works”.
Herein lies the core of the dispute: the municipality believes that the Finance Ministry paid back the loan to the World Bank, or at least the part concerning traffic lights and parking meters.
But the TVMA says that the loan is still being repaid and that it is bound by a Lebanese law that gives it full authority over the management of parking meters.
When asked about the loan, the Finance Ministry referred
The National to a recent press release that said that it had nothing to do with the dispute, which concerns only the TVMA and Beirut Municipality.
A 2003 decree, voted in parallel to the World Bank loan, stipulates that the authority “collects the sums from paid parking and fines ... and deposits them in the approved bank”.
In addition, the TVMA says that it does not make enough profit to send anything to the municipality anyway.
The parking meters generate about 10 billion Lebanese pounds a year, or the equivalent of $6m at Lebanon’s official exchange rate, which is hardly used since the local currency started depreciating nine months ago.
The money is then used for the parking meters’ upkeep, as well as the maintenance of traffic lights and the traffic management centre.
This also costs about 10 billion Lebanese pounds, meaning there is no profit, said Ayman Abdel Ghafour, president of the car registration department at the TVMA.