SULAIMANI, Iraqi Kurdistan — Within six months a major bus line will be connecting the outskirts of Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city, Sulaimani, and its old center, with the Netherlands funding just over $1 million for the project.
“Every eight minutes a bus will leave between the town of Tazluja, on the main road from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil into Sulaimani, and the Palace Hotel in the center of town,” said Rene Fijen, a Dutch entrepreneur whose previous contributions to Kurdistan include speed bumps and “cat’s eye” road reflectors.
Two years ago he started discussing bus lines to help Kurdish cities fight growing traffic congestion.
But plans for a “Citibus” project and a “Kurdibus,” to connect the main Kurdish cities, had to be shelved after the Iraqi government froze budget payments to Erbil in January, and due to Kurdistan’s war with the Islamic State (IS).
Now, the project is ready to hit the road, after Fijen secured funding from the Private Sector Investment Program of the Ministry of Economic Affairs in the Netherlands.
“The Dutch Ministry has chosen Iraq as a priority country for Dutch businesses, and this project will help local people,” Fijen said about the aid.
The funding, together with investment offered by two local Kurdish companies, is enough to start up the first stage, in which 12 Dutch-made buses will run on the first line, connecting the outskirts and the airport with Sulaimani’s city center.
Aref Aziz, operation manager at Wharco, one of the companies investing in the project, said that public transportation has become a priority for the government in Erbil, the Kurdistan Region’s capital.
“After the unrest that was created by the shortage of petrol earlier this summer, the prime minister’s office in Erbil told me that they now consider creating public transport a priority for 2015. They concluded that people would have been less angry then, if they would have had the choice of public transport.”
Local and provincial governments in Sulaimani have also declared the project to be a priority. They will have to provide the new infrastructure, with special road lanes and bus stops.
The Dutch funding will mainly go to building a bus depot, buying the buses and offering training for project personnel. The Dutch company GVB, which runs public transportation in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, will be involved in providing buses and training.
Fijen pointed out that the Sulaimani bus line will work with existing infrastructure, including overhead pedestrian bridges that will be connected to the new stops.
For “Kurdibus,” a long distance line of 16 buses connecting Sulaimani, Erbil and Duhok, the main depot will be located in the capital.
The total budget for the project amounts to $50 million dollars, Aziz said. The local government in Sulaimani is responsible for providing land for the depot, staff and the bus routes.
Fijen stressed that the buses will not destroy the taxi trade, on which many people depend for added income to augment meager salaries. “Drivers of taxis and minibuses will be trained to work as bus drivers, and we will include them in the process from the beginning. In total the bus lines will generate up to 450 jobs,” he said.
Also, taxis and minibuses will still be needed to take people to and from the main bus stops. To decrease traffic, a number of “Park and Ride” sites will be included for people to leave their cars and take the bus.