20 December 2016

Urban Transport in Tunisia: 2016, the renewal of the national strategy

years after the Tunisian Arab Spring, 2016 is a key year for major development projects, particularly in the field of transport. The 2011 revolution and the consequent political and economic instability of the country led to some complications in the implementation of the 2010-2014 five-year development plan because of the foreign investments’ decline. In the transport field, a sector already in difficulty, these complications caused projects delays or even suspensions.

The public transport infrastructure deterioration has already started in the mid-2000s. The policies pursued were oriented towards the development of road infrastructures focusing on private cars and neglecting the maintenance and development of public transport systems. According to the World Bank ranking, between 2007 and 2014, the country moved from 60th to 118th place in terms of logistics performance. The urban public transport sector suffered deeply due to this degradation: in 2015 for instance the Greater Tunis public bus network had only 220 operational units for about the same number of lines. In February 2016, a White Paper describing the disastrous situation was proposed by the World Bank to the Ministry of Transport of Tunisia. The White Paper, which is now being finalized, highlights the impact of the cumulative delays of the various projects on the deterioration of transport systems. These delays relate mainly to major infrastructure projects, equipment renewals and institutional reforms.

The year 2016 aims to mark a turning point in this trend: the launch of a new five-year development plan aims to attract new investors. At the same time, the Ministry of Transport of Tunisia intends to renew its strategic policy in the long term through the preparation of the National Transport Master Plan for 2040.

A new long-term strategy for transport is launched

On November 9th, 2016, the Ministry of Transport of Tunisia organized a workshop with the purpose of starting the work for the new National Transport Master Plan for 2040. This plan will be developed with the assistance of Egis International – IDEA Consult. It is expected to last eighteen months and will be completed in the first half of 2018 through the delivery of the Master Plan to the Ministry. This plan should enable the Tunisian authorities to have a scheme for investment and maintenance of transport across the country, as well as institutional and regulatory measures. Such a plan is meant to be a vision document for all the technical and financial partners who will thus have a range of strategic actions to follow.

By developing a whole new strategy, the ministry has expressed a strong desire to break with the current governance model. Indeed, the Tunisian model, based mainly on public transport companies which are no longer financially viable, has unveiled its limits. On the one hand, the rates charged by transport companies such as Transtu in Tunis or SORETRAS in Sfax (Société des Transports de Sfax) are set and monitored by the government following the “user-payer” principle. Fares had only a modest increase in more than ten years instead of progressively increasing keeping up with inflation. In this way, the charges are not covered at all and the user-payer principle is no longer working. Thus, at the end of 2015, Transtu had a cumulative deficit of 700 million dinars. On the other hand, the budgetary situation has greatly slowed the granting of public subsidies to cover the deficit of reductions and allowances (students, unemployed, disabled …). These delays have accentuated the operating system fragility.

Faced with these dysfunctions, the National Transport Master Plan aims to prepare and execute the transition towards a more stable and efficient business model. It must ensure the integration and overall effectiveness of the strategy with other sectors such as urban planning, energy and environment. In terms of sustainable development, some issues have already been identified, such as the reduction of road accidents and of energy consumptions.

The short-term strategy aims to boost investment in major infrastructure projects

The year 2016 also marks the start of the XII Five-Year Development Plan for 2020. In terms of urban transport, this five-year plan is ambitious and displays a strategic vision oriented towards the rehabilitation and development of public transport. Various areas such as the restructuring of public enterprises, the improvement of quality of service and safety, and the development of public-private partnerships projects or the integration of new technologies to adopt intelligent transport are thus developed.

This plan includes important infrastructure projects centred on Tunis and Sfax (second city of Tunisia). The capital concentrates the vast majority of these investments with the continuity of the flagship project of the Réseau Ferré Rapide (vast suburban network under construction) requiring about 1.8 billion dinars, as well as the rehabilitation and extension of the light railway network (urban tramway system).

In total, transport would bring together more than 17 billion dinars of investment in this new five-year plan of which the 36% coming from foreign investments. In order to mobilize these investments, the Tunisia 2020 international conference was organized on 29th and 30th November in Tunis. The objective of this conference was to present to the international community the five-year plan 2016-2020 as well as the reform program for public administrations and enterprises in order to mobilize investors and encourage public-private partnerships. Under the direction of the Ministry of Investment, Development and International Cooperation, the various ministries were therefore gathered to synthesize the main orientations of the plan. For example, the Ministry of Transport associated with the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Equipment, Housing and Town and Country Planning, and the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy, gave their list of projects to investors. The city of Sfax is also launching its own public transport project consisting of two light metro lines (tramways) and three high-level bus lines. The total project requires an investment of 2 billion dinars, among them 600 million for the first phase of implementation in 2016-2020. The Sfax public transport project and the second phase of the Tunis Rapid Rail Network (Réseau Ferré Rapide, RFR) project are on the top of this list. In addition to these infrastructure projects a strong need to renew equipment and vehicles was expressed. The vehicles of the Tunis light metro system are more than 25 years old, their renewal of the fleet is considered as a top priorities in the plan. Moreover, purchase of more than 3000 new bus is programmed for Transtu in Tunis and regional transport companies all over Tunisia.

The Tunisia 2020 conference welcomed more than 4500 attendees representing 70 countries and was thus an opportunity for decision-makers to interact with Tunisian operators and authorities which allowed them to position themselves on various development projects. In total, the commitments formulated represent an overall amount of 19 billion dinars. The European Investment Bank (EIB) was positioned with a statement of 6.8 billion over 4 years for the financing of infrastructure and the development of the private sector, as well as the French Development Agency with an investment of 2.5 billion dinars over 4 years and a set of loans of around 420 million dinars.

Major challenge: the coordination between actors

Although this renewal of the strategic vision and the re-dynamization of investments is essential for the development of urban transport in Tunisia, the main challenge today lies in the coordination between all actors involved in the various projects. It is thus necessary to adopt an institutional model favouring the projects implementation.

In Tunis, the RFR project (Réseau Ferré Rapide) illustrates perfectly this coordination challenge. Started in 2007, this project of suburban rail network aims to connect the suburbs of Greater Tunis with its centre. It will be operated by the SNCFT, and will be added to the existing urban network operated by the Tunis Transport Company (Transtu). In parallel with this major project, Transtu has started a modernization of its network in terms of infrastructure and ticketing. The desire of the authorities to offer an integrated transport solution leads to consider the interoperability issues of the two networks RFR and Transtu. In order to properly integrate the RFR with the rest of the network, it is essential that actors coordinate, communicate and make common decisions.

At present, this coordination is expressed by the etsablishment of ad hoc commissions enabling stakeholders to follow each-other’s projects. Nevertheless, no common decision-making structures exists and the actors struggle in developing and implementing a collective vision. The Law 33 of 2004 (Reform of the Transport sector) foresees the establishment of Regional Organizing Land Transport Authorities (AROTT) in major Tunisian cities. However, no authority has been created so far. In Sfax, a project started in 2013 to create such a regional authority. A prefiguration committee is now in place with the purpose of following the Sfax projects and establishing this authority. In Tunis, the process to establish such authority started in 2016. Following the exemple of Sfax, a decision-making committee is under construction to bring together the urban transport decision-makers of the Greater Tunis and gradually establish an organizing authority.

The creation of these authorities represents a major challenge for the successful implementation of urban transport projects at the local level. Nevertheless, this reorganization implies an evolution of the existing institutional system and requires to adapt to new modes of governance. Beyond the needs for more investment, the big challenge is to change mentalities in a quick growing country that has reached a critical stage in its transition.