This is the fourth instalment of the collaboration between Kapital Insights and Friedrich Naumann Foundation for the Freedom (FNF), which we dubbed "Black Wednesdays". We publish the next story from the Black Book on Government Waste - a flagship project by FNF and independent journalists aimed at exposing problematic, wasteful and potentially corrupt practices perpetrated by national and local authorities across Bulgaria. In its six editions since 2015, the authors of the Black Book have tracked dozens of examples of how public money is mismanaged.
In this story from 2016, we return to the Black Sea capital of Varna, where Dnevnik.bg reporter Spas Spassov tells the story of the project for integrated public transport of Varna, worth 57 million euro, which was formally completed in 2016, but is still not fully operational. As of the time of writing of this article, the only completed component of the project was that the municipality had paid the media to advertise the project. Varna residents are still waiting for the high-speed bus route to become operational and for the ticket vending machines to start accepting debit cards.
The "Integrated Public Transport of Varna" project is the largest that the municipality has worked on over the past 20 years. Fifty seven million euro was allocated for its implementation, mostly grants under the EU program on Regional Development (2007-2013). The project has ten components including the delivery of 70 new buses, the repair of main roads, the construction of bike lanes, the installation of ticket vending machines and the development of a real-time traffic information system.
The implementation deadline was extended three times, with the latest "deadline" expiring on 31 August 2016. According to the reports sent to the funding body, the work appears to have been completed as follows:
Several boulevards in Varna have been re-asphalted and fitted with partially replaced underground cables, which form the route of the so-called BRT corridor (Bus Rapid Transit, or high-speed bus route).
The stops of the high-speed bus route and the buses have been equipped with 539 ticket machines, as well as real time boards informing passengers of the bus schedule. Systems that ensure the right of passage of public transport vehicles had been installed on expressway intersections.
In 2013, 70 new buses were put into operation, and at the end of November 2015, 16 km of bike lanes were completed. The final stops of the transit corridor were repaired, and ramps for people with disabilities were erected at every stop.
The parallel reality of the municipalityThe above-mentioned description is the "parallel reality" of the official authorities. The other reality - the one in which Varna's residents inhabit, couldn't be more different. In it, the "Integrated Public Transport of Varna" project is well on the way to becoming one of the most blatant examples of irresponsible and inefficient spending of European taxpayer money.
The budget for repairs of road pavements and underground communications along the BRT corridor set in the contract for grant financing of the project in 2012 was 15 million euro. But in May 2013, only a year later, a four-kilometer stretch of the Vladislav Varnenchik Boulevard in Varna had to be re-asphalted with 2,5 million euro provided urgently by the first cabinet of Boyko Borissov. A probable explanation for this lies in the by-elections for mayor of Varna and the extraordinary parliamentary elections held in May and June of the same year.
Another part of the corridor, on Maria Luisa Blvd., was repaired with money from the municipal budget in the spring of 2015. It never became clear how the repairs of the last two sections of the BRT corridor - the Treti Mart and Vasil Levski Boulevards, were funded.
The implementation of the project raises doubts
The Deputy Mayor of Varna responsible for the implementation of the project, Hristo Ivanov, did not answer questions on the topic. Yet, figuring out the "background picture" doesn't seem complicated. Unlike European financing, the control over the spending of money from the municipal and state budgets falls in the auspices of the National Audit Office and the Agency for State Financial Inspection. Reports after their inspections often caused noisy scandals, but they quickly died out when signals reached the prosecutor's office.
Several photos posted on social media in early September 2016 also raised doubts about the project's implementation. They show that the brand new vending machines for bus tickets installed in the autumn of last year have already been "repaired" with zip-ties. And without ever having been put to use. According to several reports sent to the executive director of the municipal company Gradski Transport in Varna, the reason for the "repair" was that the machines were not constructed to withstand the vibrations.
That is not the only problem with the ticket machines. The deadline for launching them has constantly been postponed for "any moment now". The last instance was in early July 2016. Yet, as Biliana Yakova, project manager of the Integrated Public Transport department of Varna municipality said, according to the technical specification of the contracting authority and the technical proposal of the contractor "Modern Transport Association", the automated ticket system has been "tested and is working".
Tested and working, but not really
The contractor's obligation was "only to deliver and install machines with fiscal devices, not fiscalized ones". For this reason, another company was entrusted with the fiscalization - "Custom Engineering Bulgaria". Whether this happened is not clear. But until the beginning of October 2016 (when this text was sent for publishing) the tactile displays of the blue machines at the stops and in the buses in Varna remained dark.
According to the terms of reference attached to the competition notice, vending machines placed at bus stops and buses must accept coins and banknotes, return change, service credit and debit cards, load public transport season tickets, and provide a check if credit is available on them. However, experts among the potential contractors warned Ms Yakova that since there will be only one vending machine on each bus, this would lead to a delay in service and the formation of queues at peak hours. In addition, the performance of all the mentioned operations in a moving bus posed dangers to the health of the passengers.
Despite all warnings, the vending machine system was ordered and implemented in its original version. Due to the size of the machines, they are now placed in the only possible locations of the new buses - those designed for people with mobility issues and prams.
The exact price of the vending machines is still unclear. This is because the order for their production and installation was included in the total amount of 7 million euro, together with the development of the information system announcing the next bus stop. The main components in it - the light boards, the internet platform and the mobile application, were also reported as having been completed. However, they still work only in test mode.
"The site is undergoing maintenance"
In fact, it is exactly this part of the project that triggered a tragicomic scandal at the end of 2015. At the time, in the municipal site www.itransportvarna.bg, created under the same project, the traffic information that appeared was in fact copied in full from a similar site of a private company, which had been offering the same information free of charge to the public.
Immediately after the attempt to clarify the case, the platform was blocked by its administrators, without any explanation. A month later, it turned out that the platform was even suspended due to unpaid hosting. Since then, every attempt to load it leads to the same message: "The site is undergoing maintenance!" Due to the apparently non-functioning management system of the project "Integrated Public Transport of Varna", its largest component - the so-called BRT corridor - is also still not operational. Additionally, the network of bicycle lanes costing 2,3 million euro only caused a wave of ridicule due to their poor placement and quality. But even that did not seem to make the institutions care.
The only element of the project that went without a hiccup seemed to be the money spent on publicity. Despite all the false starts and postponed finishes, on the eve of the local elections - in August 2016, 400,000 euro were spent on commercials of the successful completion of the project in local media. Unsurprisingly, the largest share of the pie turned out to have been directed to outlets directly or indirectly related to local and central government officials.