Campaigning for reelection, Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian promised on Thursday to radically revamp the city’s outdated system of public transportation, a source of growing complaints from commuters and opposition allegations of government corruption.
Ever since the mid-1990s the system has been dominated by minibuses belonging to private companies, many of them owned by government-linked individuals or even government officials themselves. Few of them have invested in their fleet of aging vehicles in the past several years. The minibuses as well as a smaller number of buses provided by the municipal administration have become even more overcrowded as a result.
Two opposition groups running in municipal elections slated for May 14 portray the lingering problems with public transport as a vivid example of what they call Yerevan’s mismanagement by Markarian. The 38-year-old mayor, in office since 2011, has been nominated for reelection by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
“Today one of the pressing problems for Yerevan residents is municipal transport,” Markarian admitted at a campaign rally held in the city’s Nor Nork district. “That [problem] has not been solved the past few years but we have not sat idly by and have looked into the experience of developed cities with the best transport systems.”
Markarian said that a European consulting firm hired by his office late last year will soon make detailed recommendations on how to replace the battered minibuses by modern buses and operate the system efficiently. “We are confident that we can finally sort out municipal transport in Yerevan,” he declared.
One of Markarian’s deputies, Kamo Areyan, echoed that pledge when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). But he would not be drawn on the cost of the promised reform or time frames for its implementation.
Stepan Safarian, an opposition member of Yerevan’s outgoing municipal assembly, cast doubt on the improvements promised by the incumbent mayor, arguing that many officials and influential businesspeople personally benefit from the existing public transport system. He said things could improve only “if a decision is made at a higher level to change the system.”
Markarian already pledged to address the city’s transport woes ahead of the last mayoral elections held in May 2013. Few Yerevan residents have seen any improvements since then.
“Nothing has improved in the last four years,” said one woman standing at bus stop in the city center. “On the contrary, the minibuses have gotten older.”
“Buses are overcrowded especially in the morning,” complained another woman. “It’s very hard to get to work on time.”
Later in 2013, the municipal administration triggered angry protests when it raised public transport fees by at least 50 percent. It promptly scrapped the highly unpopular measure amid an unprecedented campaign of civil disobedience led by young activists.
Meanwhile, Markarian’s main election challenger, Nikol Pashinian of the opposition Yelk alliance, continued to lambaste his track record while campaigning in the city’s Arabkir district on Thursday. “The Yerevan municipality spends $1 million a year on cars used by its officials, and there are many other expenditures of this kind,” he said.
“Its staffs are bloated. All election falsifiers have been given jobs in the municipal or district administrations,” charged the outspoken opposition leader.