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Getting to the Games

By John Psaropoulos, Athens News
Reprinted by Permission

Anyone living or working along Kifissias Avenue is aware of the daily purgatory of inching along in solid traffic. During the Olympics, Kifissias will be the main conduit between the hotels clustered in the city centre and around the old airport, and the Olympic stadium complex in Maroussi. The stage is set for congestion of major proportions, and the International Olympic Committee knows it.

Accordingly, IOC coordinator Denis Oswald has demanded no fewer than three level crossings on Kifissias, which would speed traffic through major intersections. Olympic organisers say they can manage only one, and even that has come under attack by local mayors.

Private traffic has been over-accommodated, they say, and Olympic planners must use the impetus of the Games to provide sorely needed public transport.

The unfortunate truth is that it is too late to abandon roadworks in favour of public transport, even as it is unthinkable to delay the development of public transport to satisfy a meteoric rise in the number of cars. Both must be done simultaneously.

The damage of overconsumption in cars was spurred on by the government's infrastructure plan for the entire country in the 1990s, which was oriented almost entirely towards road development. This has had an effect on cities, where the car has increasingly become part of the way of life.

But public transport has chiefly suffered from an innate weakness: it is approached piecemeal. There is a chronic lack of coordination between local government, ministries and the carriers themselves. And there is no overall concept or blueprint of how Athens' various means of transport should complement each other.

For example, buses, trolleys and the old metro line come under the jurisdiction of the Transport & Telecommunications Ministry. The new metro is under the jurisdiction of the Environment, City Planning and Public Works Ministry, which is also responsible for road construction and maintenance. The latter ministry subcontracts underground signalling to the former ministry along with the operation of traffic lights, but retains control of all other aspects of metro operation.

The traffic police (Public Order Ministry), of course, controls traffic. Several local municipalities have to be pacified to submit to any large-scale project that spans more than one neighbourhood.

There is no single, coordinating public transport body, nor will there be one in the foreseeable future. The ministers whose portfolios bear on the issue have never convened towards such an end, nor has the topic of a reorganisation of government been broached during Mr. Simitis' time.

Perhaps this is partly due to the way in which public transport was used for political ends in the past. Pasok mobilised Athens' union of bus drivers to sting Constantinos Mitsotakis' conservative government with strikes in 1992-3.

Mitsotakis hesitated to quash Kollas, Greece's emerging Arthur Scargill, in true Thatcherite style, and by the time he decided to privatise the bus system his government had accrued mortal wounds. Pasok returned to power a few months later, sweeping aside the private system and reinstating Kollas and his followers.

Although it was then, and nominally is now, the party of the unions, Pasok did not make any attempts to consolidate the buses, trolleys and old metro line. Perhaps even Andreas Papandreou feared the power of a federated union. But neither could he propose any radical solutions for public transport, having just come to power on a platform of preserving the status quo.

IOC members are justifiably aghast at the polyarchy Athens Olympic organisers have to contend with. Their blood pressures will only rise as this polyarchy translates into unmet deadlines. Some public transport officials privately predict that the touted tram will not be completed before the Games. Greece's pool of expertise, its habit of sucking funds without producing results, and its poor public organisation put a ceiling on the rate at which money can translate into work, they say.

"There is a certain speed at which public works can progress, " a senior transport official told the Athens News. "If you try to increase the speed, you lose control of the system. You lose even the progress you had."

With even declared projects in mortal danger, it is inconceivable that new ones, such as light rail for Kifissias Avenue, should be announced.

Whether the tram slams through its deadline or not, Olympic organisers will have to resort to conventional methods: co-opting major thoroughfares for exclusively Olympic use, banishing private traffic to the undergrowth of the Athens jungle.

Traffic police will have to man major intersections day and night to override the lights, as during the 1997 World Athletic Championships. A general appearance of martial law will prevail.

(Posted 23 January 2003. Reproduced with permission.)

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