BEIRUT: Rather than traveling in their luxury sedans with tinted-windows, several lawmakers chose Wednesday to tour the capital aboard a public bus, in a rare move to express support for public transportation in the country.
Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi, who joined the MPs on their tour, took the opportunity to announce that his ministry would soon launch tenders to buy 250 buses as part of a comprehensive plan aimed at organizing the country’s public transport sector.
The initiative comes amid high gasoline prices and worsening traffic congestion, particularly in the capital.
Besides Aridi, gathering near Parliament at 10 a.m. were Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani, who heads Parliament’s Transport, Public Works, Energy and Water Committee, committee members Nabil Nicolas, a lawmaker for Metn, Akkar MP Khodr Habib, Zahle MP Joseph Maalouf, Baabda MP Ali Ammar, Hasbaya MP Qassem Hashem and Baalbek-Hermel MP Ghazi Zeaiter. The lawmakers were also joined by Abdel-Hafiz Qaissi, the director general of Land and Maritime Transport at the Public Works and Transport Ministry.
Rather than starting the tour at 10:05 a.m. sharp, as scheduled, the lawmakers waited for more committee members to arrive, as Qabbani said that a total of nine had pledged to take part in the tour.
As they waited, they cracked jokes, wondering who would be in charge of collecting the bus fares. When Ammar offered to handle the task, Aridi asked him whether he had change.
“No, and that’s why I’m handling it,” Ammar said, smiling.
When the remaining MPs failed to show up, the tour began at 10:30 a.m. Ammar, a Hezbollah MP, who sat in the front seat, took on the task of yelling out the stops, including ones in the southern suburbs that were not on the route. Each MP paid the LL750 fare and spent a few moments contemplating the novel image of a public bus ticket.
The bus lost its first passenger before it made it to Ain al-Mreisseh, when Zeaiter got off, explaining that he had to attend a session of Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee to ensure that there would be quorum.
Aridi, who said he was riding on a public bus for the first time since the 1970s, said the tour was “very important” and said he was confident that all parts of the public transportation plan would be implemented.
“You can say I made the decision and implemented it,” he said. “I’m waiting for the offers to sign them, and then we’ll get the buses,” he told The Daily Star while on board, in reference to the government’s plan to purchase 250 buses.
Aridi said that the ministry had also finished drafting a law to encourage taxi drivers to use only cars that meet public transportation safety standards.
“We will encourage them to do so by exempting them from customs fees on the new cars ... and facilitate payments by giving them the option of paying in installments,” he said.
For his part, Qaissi said that tenders to select a company to provide the buses would be launched within 10 days.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Qaissi said that 125 of the 250 buses will run between cities, and the others will be used on city routes.
“The intracity buses will accommodate up to 35 sitting passengers while the intercity ones can hold up to 30 sitting passengers and up to 60 standing,” he said.
Qaissi also explained that the new buses will be accessible to passengers with disabilities.
Over two dozen buses currently in use have received repair work to keep them in service, while 20 buses that were already in the local market have been purchased for temporary use, Qaissi added, discussing the current state of the sector.
Aridi said he was proud “that for the first time, the General Labor Confederation is calling for a strike to pressure the government to implement the transportation plan ... which the ministry has prepared,” he said, referring to the nationwide action planned for Wednesday. “Usually, they used to demonstrate against a ministry.”
Qabbani said Wednesday’s tour was aimed at encouraging people to use public transportation. “First, second and third, public transportation is the solution,” he said, adding that a culture that encourages the Lebanese to use public buses rather than their cars is necessary for the country.
Nicolas described the transportation situation in Metn as “very bad,” expressing hope of improvement if public transportation is bolstered.
“Private buses compete for the passengers and disputes [between drivers] break out every day, sometimes causing dangerous car accidents,” he said. “[Under the ministry’s plan,] public buses will be different; they will have a designated route and schedule, and there will be no competition.”
Some lawmakers waved to people on the streets, who were surprised to see their elected officials in a bus. MPs also exchanged jokes during the one-hour drive around Beirut. Speaking to Qabbani, Ammar joked that he would like to see the Beirut MP join Energy Minister Gebran Bassil for a similar tour.
Bassil, from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, often comes under harsh criticism from Future parliamentary bloc MP Qabbani over his performance. The March 14 coalition had recently said that a plan by Bassil to buy power-generating barges to boost the electricity sector involved shady deals.
Aridi asked Qabbani what he would do to Bassil if the two went on a tour on a power-generating barge. “I will not say this to media outlets,” said Qabbani.
“One of you would throw the other in the sea,” predicted Aridi.
“I come from [the seaside] Ain al-Mreisseh [neighborhood of Beirut]. I never feel seasick,” said Qabbani.
Nicolas intervened, saying that Bassil comes from the seaside town of Batroun “and is good at diving.”