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25.7.13

People Win: Price Hikes in Yerevan Public Transport Suspended

Following days of angry protests against the City Council’s decision to hike public transportation fares by 50 percent, Mayor Taron Margaryan issued a statement on Thursday, July 25, in the night (Yerevan hour) reversing the decision and rolling back the fares to their original amount.
The mayor announced that he has already begun the process of creating a task-force of experts and interested individuals who will closely analyze the decision of public transportation fare hikes and enhancement of Yerevan’s public transportation system, and until that group’s final report, he halted the execution of the fare hike.
In his statement Margaryan argued that upon assuming the mayor’s office, one of his main goals has been to upgrade the decaying transportation system in Yerevan to ensure secure transport of all passengers, thus justifying his decision to increase the fare. He went on to say that burdening an already socio-economically challenged public with the costs of improving the public transport system was not his intention.
The government’s decision to increase prices for public transport entered into force on July 20. Commuters using mini-buses (marshrootka) and buses saw fares increase by over 30 percent, from 100 to 150 drams (25 to 40 cents). Meanwhile, the fare for trollies doubled in price, from 50 to 100 drams. The decision was met with outrage from the public, and the reasons were manifold.
The public was unwilling to accept any increase in prices due to the staggeringly low minimum monthly wage for one person (35,000 drams, or approximately $85), coupled with high levels of unemployment, and other economic concerns.
Second, there was a lack of any apparent justification for the decision. The main reason is said to be the rise in natural gas prices (natural gas is used as fuel for public transportation in Armenia), and the expenses attributed to the technical maintenance of vehicles and the new assessed cost per passenger, published by the Yerevan Mayor’s Office. According to this document, the price for one mini-bus passenger is 144.3 drams, and 157.3 dram for buses. Dissatisfaction with the findings of the report led to a separate, third-party analysis, which found that the real price for one mini-bus passenger is 94.2 drams (including a five percent profit), and 118.5 drams for buses.
The owners of private companies operating Yerevan’s public transport system strongly defended the municipal government’s controversial decision to sharply raise fares in the capital, saying that it will save them from financial ruin. The directive signed by the mayor on July 19 said that transport price hikes were requested by the 48 companies operating Yerevan bus routes. The owners of at least two such firms confirmed this. They said the unpopular measure was the only way of offsetting their losses resulting from recent years’ dramatic increases in the cost of natural gas imported from Russia. Russian gas is used, in liquefied and pressurized forms, by virtually all buses and minibuses in Armenia.
“Before the price rises, public transport in the city was on the brink of collapse,” claimed Harutiun Arakelian of the Davit bus company. He said transport operators have been seeking to raise their fares since 2008. “If the companies are forced to continue operating with 100-dram tariffs they will consider going out of business,” he warned at a news conference.
Patvakan Mihranian, another operator, also claimed to be making losses. He said the previous prices have prevented him from replacing his Russian-made minibuses manufactured in 2002 with new ones. Mihranian said even 150-dram fares will not generate enough revenue for updating his aging fleet.
Many believed that the new prices were not the result of natural gas prices or technical maintenance; rather, they said, it is because the transport lines are reportedly co-owned by Mayor Margaryan and other politicians and oligarchs, and that they are the ones who made—and will profit from—the decision.
The protests drew mostly young people—students, NGO activists, civil society groups, etc.—who tended to be more determined and, in a positive sense, more aggressive and demanding. There was also an accompanying sense of community. This came about through social media like Facebook and Twitter. Committed activists worked to raise awareness by hanging leaflets and posting caricatures of Mayor Margaryan on buses and bus stops. The drivers were not identified as the enemy. It turned out that often they did not object to the old prices, and in some cases even encouraged people to pay the old fares. Some drivers even went on strike, declaring that they too are against the new prices and do not want any conflicts with passengers. Leaders of the movement carried on with their campaign backed by opposition parties and a growing number of Armenian celebrities that have not been involved in civic activism until now.
The protest against the new prices led to citizens raising other concerns regarding the system of public transportation in Yerevan. They are now demanding that authorities provide more vehicles to reduce the number of overcrowded mini-buses and buses; develop a new payment system; provide discounts for students and other special groups; ensure that people with disabilities can take full advantage of public transport; control the length of driving shifts to avoid drivers being overworked; get rid of the hand-to-hand paying system; take steps toward eliminating private ownership of public transportation; and hold the Mayor’s office responsible.
 
"The Armenian Weekly," July 23; Azatutyun.am, July 23 and 24; "Asbarez," July 25,  2013.

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