Sunday, 22 August 2010

Storm over Leningradka

Moscow authorities found a solution to the city’s traffic problem, labelled the worst in Europe.

The only problem was they made it worse.

When construction began on a dilapidated bridge 24 kilometers outside of Moscow on Leningradskoye Shosse, paralysing Moscow’s only thoroughfare to Sheremetyevo Airport, it caused thousands to miss their flights – and forced Transport Minister Igor Levitin to take the train.

As a result, Sheremetyevo’s general director, Mikhail Vasilyev, who fumed about hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses in a June 30 blog post, accused Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov of a conspiracy to steal clients awayto the new terminal at Vnukovo Airport, in which the city government has a stake.

It also caused Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to notice the problem the next day and order federal officials to get to work. With a wave of the wand – and a remark by Russia’s most influential politician – two lanes were opened on Moscow’s infamous Leningradka.

Two agencies – the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service and the Prosecutor General’s Office – began checking why City Hall picked the height of the summer holiday season to begin repairs that had been slated for spring.

“This situation indicates the absolute absence of an elementary management culture,” Mikhail Blinkin, head of research at the Moscow Research Institute of Transport and Road Systems, told The Moscow News. “And what is even more dangerous for the average person – it demonstrates an absence of road planning.”

The jams reportedly caused Aeroflot to lose some $800,000 to ticket refunds, RIA Novosti reported. And, as Sheremetyevo’s Vasilyev wrote in his blog, the airport wasn’t even warned about the pending construction work.

“Technically, there was a need to organise a bypass exit,” Blinkin said. “However, nothing was done, and it’s the mayor’s direct responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s comments on Thursday eased traffic congestion for only a day. Though four out of six lanes were open instead of two the day before, by late Friday evening traffic jams were as bad as ever, and reached as far out into the Moscow region as Dmitrov, some 65 kilometres away, where people had to take detours to reach their dachas for the weekend.

It also affected other routes north and northwest of the city.

“Yesterday I gave a ride from Sokol to Zelenograd. This trip took me more than three hours,” said Oleg, a bored-looking taxi driver waiting for passengers on Leningradsky Prospekt on Friday.

“Many people heard about the Leningradka gridlock and tried to use alternative ways to get to Zelenograd, such as the Pyatnitskoye highway. But since everybody was trying to get there through the same bypasses, the alternative routes were also heavily jammed.”

Viktor, another cabby in the area, said he had given up on trying to take people to Sheremetyevo because it took him at least four hours to get there.

Analysts said that Luzhkov’s uncertain future as mayor may have played a role in fuelling the traffic scandal. The long-serving mayor is said to be on his way out as soon as the Kremlin decides on his replacement.

But experts said that transportation – not politics – was at the heart of the problem.

“The fact that Luzhkov’s fate is still unclear causes political players to act more brashly,” Tatyana Stanovaya, an expert with the Center for Political Technologies, told The Moscow News. “But general discontent with the situation on the roads is growing across the country – traffic jams, accidents, driving habits, violations by people with migalki – all this accumulates and spills over into protests, forcing federal and city authorities to react more strongly to the problem.”

According to Dmitry Badovsky, an expert at Moscow State University’s Institute for the Research of Social Systems, the latest scandal has put transport high on the agenda both federal and city authorities.

“Transportation has been at the heart of a series of conflicts between the city and federal authorities,” Badovsky said, adding that they will now be forced to solve it together.

Blinkin, the roads expert, said this should have been done years ago. “If there was any proper planning there, the Transport Ministry, Luzhkov and [the Moscow region’s governor, Boris Gromov would have come together to discuss this issue. But they did not.”

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