After delays and setbacks spanning decades, the Amman-Zarqa bus rapid transit project is finally up and running.
The growth and development of Amman and Zarqa have long been intertwined, not least because of their close proximity to one another (they’re only about 20 kilometers apart). Some would even argue that continuous growth along the Amman-Zarqa corridor, notably in areas like Russeifa, have rendered the two cities into a single, integrated metropolitan area—and quite a large one, at that. According to the 2015 census the governorates of Amman and Zarqa jointly house over 56 percent of the Kingdom’s population.
Recent estimates have put the number of daily travelers between the two cities at around 500,000. The Amman-Zarqa corridor is experiencing increasing levels of congestion, since travel is done via conventional modes such as private cars or one of the 24 public transport routes operating between the two cities.
Talk of a rapid transit line between Amman and Zarqa dates back many years. A plan was finally formed in the mid-2000s that involved constructing a light rail system through a build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract. There were various contractual terms suggested at different points since then, but the proposed business model essentially provided the selected contractor with commercial investment rights around stations and a minimum revenue guarantee from government.
The contract was first awarded to a Pakistani-Chinese consortium. When that consortium failed to meet terms pertaining to financial closure, the contract was handed to a Kuwaiti-Spanish group. This agreement also fell through, and both cases resulted in legal action by the private consortia against the government. Following that, there was a third short-lived attempt to construct the light rail system led by the Jordanian firm TaherInvest.
As the various schemes failed to take off, the government began a high-level assessment of a potential bus rapid transit (BRT) line between Amman and Zarqa, as opposed to a rail-based system. BRT is generally cheaper and easier to implement and can provide a high quality of service somewhat comparable to that of light rail.
The idea was taken forward and in 2014 the government appointed a consultant to carry out the studies and engineering designs for the Amman-Zarqa BRT. That same year, the government also announced that construction of the project would be funded through the GCC grant.
Today, after unexplained delays, the GCC funding is no more—possibly reallocated to other projects—but the Amman-Zarqa BRT project seems to be finally happening. At the start of the year, the government approved a JD140 million financing scheme for the project through an agreement with the Social Security Investment Fund. Assuming this agreement holds, actual construction work should begin shortly.
And perhaps the implementation of the Amman-Zarqa BRT at a time when the BRT system inside Amman is also under construction presents unique opportunities for integration. There is now a concerted effort to create connection points between the two systems, not only at Mahatta but also to the northeast, at Ain Ghazal. It has also been agreed that the two systems would be operated by a single operator, allowing for direct services from Zarqa to the University of Jordan, for example, without having passengers switch from one system to another. BRT is a flexible concept that allows for flexible services and routes, and I’m glad to see government leveraging that to provide a higher quality of service.
* Hazem Zureiqat is a transport consultant at Engicon, a multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm based in Amman, and a founding member of Ma’an Nasel, a citizen-led public transport advocacy group. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @hazem.