transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
I had the opportunity to view some of the bid documents and specifications for this bus acquisition in my meeting at IRTRAMMA. They were quite technical (e.g. finite element analysis of different bus components), and it seems like the government is satisfied that DINA, a Mexican manufacturer, will meet their requirements. Translated from “Buses nuevos vendrán en cinco meses,” published February 3rd on El 19 Digital, an online news source for President Ortega’s government:
By the middle of this year the first lot of buses coming from Mexico will enter the country, and by next October it is expected that all of the 350 units will be circulating in the capital to benefit some 350,000 Nicaraguans. The announcement was made by the director of Managua’s Municipal Transport Regulator (IRTRAMMA), comrade Francisco Alvarado, after signing the manufacturing contract with Mr. Martín Meléndez, representative of the Mexican company DINA Trucks Ltd.
These buses will have a capacity for 70 people (40 seated) and will be acquired by different urban transport cooperatives of the capital, whose representatives seemed satisfied with the entire bidding process, which concluded this Thursday with the signing of a contract equivalent to approximately $24 million, money financed by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) and managed by the government of President Daniel Ortega Saavedra.
“For DINA Trucks and for Mexico as a whole it is a pride to participate in this purchase of buses for the people of Nicaragua,” said Meléndez, the representative of the Mexican company.
He said that these new buses will be fabricated with the climactic and topographic conditions of Nicaragua in mind and “that all the citizens of Managua and Nicaragua should have the confidence that they can count on buses of the first world, of extraordinary quality, and that they will benefit.” Ten percent of all of the buses will be manufactured with a system of special lifts for people who use wheelchairs.
“By the end of this year Managua will totally transform its fleet and with that its model of municipal transit,” assured Alvarado.
Luis Jiménez, a bus owner, said that improving and transforming the system of buses in Managua could only happen under the direction of a Sandinista Government.
“The strength which the revolutionary government has used in these negotiations is excellent. We have ordered a bus that will have excellent technical features and at the right price, and that will benefit the people foremost,” said Jiménez.
The political overtones of this article make more sense when one considers that Nicaragua’s next presidential elections are scheduled for November. With an election looming, I am confident that most or all of the buses will actually be operating by October. This means the demand for US school buses in Nicaragua will have declined significantly by then. It also means that IRTRAMMA should consider changing its logo, which currently features a yellow school bus complete with a stop sign:
After my excellent meeting with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency, he graciously arranged for me to visit the facilities of Alba Transport (shared with Alba Equipment), where the city’s old buses amarillos (yellow buses) were being decommissioned. Here’s what opposition newspaper El Nuevo Diario had to say about the Alba companies and a reporter’s attempt to investigate Alba Transport:
The private firm doing business as Alba of Nicaragua, Ltd., Albanisa, tied to the presidential family, constitutes only the name and face of an emporium of businesses that offer all type of services, making itself into a new economic power in the country…The mother company or head of the octopus was formed in 2007 with the oversight of President Daniel Ortega and his Venezuelan partner and provider, Hugo Chávez…But from it also extend Alba Caruna, Alba Equipment, Alba Security, Alba Generation, Alba Ports, Alba Deposits, Alba Wind Power, Alba Food, Alba Transport, Alba Tenosa, and “at least two more which are being formed,” indicated informants.
El Nuevo Diario arrived at the facilities of Alba Equipment…and as we approached, the guards of Alba Security came out to meet us, and after making phone calls and making us uncomfortable, indicated that we could not wander around the site. Right there, in the gates of the two “Little Albas [Transport and Equipment],” we asked if [Alba Transport’s Director Freddy] Acevedo could be found, but the guards, now warned by the gray-haired man, did not respond to more questions and asked us to leave “to avoid problems.”…To these facilities were brought the 130 buses donated by the Russian Federation to Alba-Caruna, to open the windows, put in radiators, and change the brake system, i.e. adjust them to the climate and needs of the country.
When I arrived at the front gate, I was also greeted with a bit of suspicion by the Alba Security guards. They took a bit to confirm my identity (a Japanese reporter writing for a US school bus magazine – I highlighted my Japanese heritage rather than my “Yankee imperialist” heritage for the Sandinistas) and that I had an appointment with Director Acevedo. In the meantime, I saw a couple of buses skidding around in the compound, presumably testing their newly acclimatized brakes.
Director Acevedo gave me a great tour of the Alba Transport facility. Sitting in a lot were 104 dilapidated former US school buses, between 20 and 30 years old, waiting to be disassembled. Oil and other contaminants were drained in a process authorized by the national environmental oversight agency, then the buses were scrapped. I saw a couple of 18-wheelers with FSLN (governing Sandinista party) flags on the dashboard hauling away the scrap metal during my visit. There were also a few buses painted bright pink, which Director Acevedo said were used for entertaining children.
I also enjoyed seeing the other side of the equation, brand new Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod buses that had just arrived from Russia. Alba Transport had handed the first batch of these buses over to operators but quickly realized that modifications were necessary:
The buses were delivered to seven of the thirty-six routes of urban collective transit, the majority of which are affiliated with the governing party, at a cost of $25,000 per bus. Transport sector sources affirmed that the cooperatives are unhappy with the buses, because each one needs to be held back a certain time for for problems related to acclimatization, “but the bill has to be paid on time.”
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After seeing some of the maintenance facilities for the new Kavz buses, Director Acevedo and I returned to his office. At his desk (complete with a small FSLN flag), we discussed the importation of used buses. School buses generally enter the country by boat through Puerto Corinto, but it is now illegal to import buses manufactured before 1996. The Director expressed his hope that within two years, all of the old school buses would be off of Managua’s streets.
Such an ambitious replacement plan could only happen with continued aid, like that which Venezuela gives to Nicaragua through Albanisa. While Albanisa is largely under the control of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, ALBA is a larger economic effort in Latin America to combat US-style neoliberal economic policies. Much of ALBA is driven by Venezuelan oil, as described in the same article from El Nuevo Diario:
Alba Caruna, which until a few years ago was a small credit cooperative, today is essentially the state bank and receives 25 of the 50% of the Alba Fund, which originates from the payment of the oil invoice that Nicaragua pays for the importation of Venezuelan crude.
Nicaragua imports Venezuelan petroleum through Petronic, which pays the the bill to the account of Albanisa, which, in its turn, pays 50% of the bill to the Venezuelan PDVSA. They transfer the other 50% to the Alba Fund (25% for social projects in all of the Alba countries) and the other 25% is transferred to Alba Caruna. During the past year, Venezuela’s help aid to Nicaragua reached $457 milion, according to source at the Central Bank of Nicaragua. Of this total, $146 million (30%) was for Alba Curuna.
This aid has benefited Sandinista farmers through rural agriculture products and city-dwellers through the new buses and fare subsidies. As the Sandinista Vision magazine describes,
The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) has, for the last three years, been a blessing for Nicaragua to get out of the social, economic, and structural problems left by the neoliberals who governed the country for more than sixteen years, leaving a high percentage of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and misery, among so many other ills. In what conditions would we Nicaraguans be if the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity, headed by President Daniel Ortega, could not count on the resources to face the world economic crisis and the twelve-hour blackouts which we were suffering in the recent past?
An exceptional credit to Albanisa is that which is known as the Modernization of Collective Transport in Managua, which arose due to the strikes which occurred in May of 2008…A new contract signed with the Russian Federation will permit 225 more buses to enter the country, conditioned for the tropical climate and a little bigger, all with the end of modernizing the transport of the capital. The social fare project which Commander Ortega maintains to benefit more than 800,000 capital residents who utilize public buses, will continue to the end of this year. “Many citizens are now accustomed to paying 2.50 Cordobas for the fare which at best would cost 5.00 Cordobas if it were not subsidized,” said Jorge Martínez, President of Alba Caruna.
So my trip to visit a bunch of rusty old school buses from the United States ended up including brand new Russian buses bought with Venezuelan oil and a debate about whether this evolving economic arrangement was a blessing or an octopus.
In comparison to the one I made for Belize, the transit diagram I made for Nicaragua is not based as heavily on the iconic London Underground diagram. I am being more careful about using the word diagram instead of map, since in these images I aimed for representational clarity rather than geographical accuracy. I have been working on this diagram over the course of two months; a number of features made it more of a challenge to create than my first. Including both English and Spanish introduced both translation and layout concerns. I tried to make the diagram colorblind accessible by coding routes with two-letter service designations. This coding scheme served additionally to indicate that certain cities were the final stop for at least some of the buses running along a given route. I also included an inset to show local bus routes connecting Managua’s main terminals.
Download a high quality PDF here.
The image below shows the routes I traveled during my time in Nicaragua.
I enjoyed the Taiwanese Embassy-sponsored jazz concert so much that I decided to attend another diplomatically arranged musical event. One Friday edition of La Prensa explained the background of the giant cube-like structure I had seen being constructed at the Santo Domingo Mall on my commute into Spanish classes. The German Embassy was sponsoring an Electronica Bonanza, “a new dimension of electronic concert in which the music and images envelop the sensory atmosphere.”
While the German DJs and various random images projected on the structure’s walls were enjoyable, I’m not sure they reached a new dimension. I enjoyed the Nicaraguan band Momotombo, complete with marimba, tuba, trombone, and guitars, the best. Pictures and video from the concert are here.
I had the opportunity to meet with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency (Instituto Regulador de Transporte del Municipio de Managua). He graciously shared a number of interesting facts about their work and gave me some great maps about land use, bus routes, and transit planning in the city.
In the Managua, there are approximately 800 local buses that run on 34 different routes, with 855,000 unlinked boardings daily. The agency’s ridership statistics come from BEA infrared passenger counters installed at the entrance and exit of each bus. Initially, convincing the bus owner cooperatives to allow the installation of these bars was difficult; the owners soon realized, however, that passenger counts would allow them to determine how much fare revenue the drivers were filching (it turned out to be an average of 40%).
A few years ago, President Daniel Ortega announced his Modernization Plan for Urban Transport in Managua. Since then, hundreds of buses amarillos (“yellow buses,” as Nicaraguans call the former school buses) have been replaced, mostly by new 28-seat Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod (Kavz) buses donated by Russia. These buses, though they are more comfortable for passengers and less polluting for the environment, have had a number of “acclimitization” problems (including with bearings, lubrication, and brakes). Nonetheless, the agency is planning to order 250 additional 40-seat Kavz buses, as well as 300 more buses from Mexico, to arrive by March. I especially enjoyed in looking over a report of specifications and finite-element analysis of these new buses; it was a definite highlight to be sitting with Managua’s head transit planner (and an automotive engineer by training) discussing, in his words, “the design of the perfect bus.”
IRTRAMMA’s long term plans are also interesting. After replacing all of the old school buses, by June 2011, according to plans, they will start implementing a bus rapid transit system tentatively named Metrovia. The agency is in the process of analyzing ridership data from the onboard passenger counters, and they plan to consolidate the thirty-four currently operating routes into eighteen BRT trunk lines and feeders. The Director stressed that they were attempting to optimize these new routes by using a scientific, data-driven approach.
Overall, IRTRAMMA’s goal is to facilitate efficient, safe, comfortable, and economical transport service in Managua. Groups like the BRU in Los Angeles or TRU in Boston might find this last priority interesting; the director explicitly stated that affordability, “to favor the people with the fewest resources in society,” was at the top of his agency’s political agenda.
A couple of years ago, the government proposed raising the bus fare from 13¢ to 15¢, sparking disruptive student strikes that eventually convinced the government to forgo the fare increase. Maintaining affordability while modernizing the fleet and improving bus rights of way will, in the Director’s words, require a “step by step” implementation over a number of years. Aid from other countries will also help (more on that here).
Managua is a relatively low-density, sprawling city. After the 1972 earthquake heavily damaged the historical center, rebuilding radiated outwards, with a great deal of construction taking place in outlying lots owned by the Somoza regime. The first old school buses from the US came in the mid-1970s as a response to the earthquake, and their history in Managua is intertwined with the city’s sprawl. On an average day, about 800 local buses are on the road in Managua, transporting 855,000 passengers on 34 numbered routes. While many of these buses are conventional and transit-style former school buses (with back doors added), some are transit buses manufactured by Dyna (in Mexico) or Kavz (in Russia).
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