Nizhny’s $730m subway boondoggle

19 Feb '10
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Nizhny Novgorod residents will have to wait another year for its subway to be extended to the city’s historic downtown. Badly planned and losing $10m a year because so few people use it, city officials have promised to connect the one-line system to the city center for years. Confident that a key metro bridge over the Oka River was nearing completion, officials said the project would be completed by 2011. Now they have changed their tune. With the project 50% over budget and still counting and the RF refusing to kick in any funding this year, it looks like Nizhny residents will have to ride on ancient trams and overcrowded buses for a few more years.

Nizhny Novgorod regional authorities had to admit earlier this week that the opening of the first subway station in the heart of the city’s most populous right Volga bank would probably be pushed back from its original 2011 target.

According to a regional legislator and the director of the city’s transportation infrastructure, Alexander Tabachnikov, the Gorkovskaya subway station in Nizhny’s historical center, currently under construction, “will take at least two years to build.” And that’s provided that funding is uninterrupted and sufficient. Given last year’s major financial disruption and ongoing snags (builders got no funds in January 2010 to do any work), the legislator said he doubted the project would make the 2011 deadline, declining, though, to give any specifics.

50% over budget and still counting

According to regional news source NTA-Privolzhye, the cost of digging tunnels in the hilly right Volga bank and building the Gorkovskaya station is now around $230m. Another $500m is reportedly required to fully open Nizhny’s hybrid metro-bridge across the Oka River, which is finally near completion.

It is a lot more than a $530m 2009-2010 estimate that regional officials aired in September 2008 for the entire project.

Last year the region scrambled to scrape up just under $170m, with the RF contributing only 10%. This year, NTA reports the RF is allocating nothing; the region of Nizhny Novgorod expects to put up $100m, with city coffers apparently kicking in a tiny $3.3m (still a ten-time increase from what was originally planned).

Mr. Tabachnikov said authorities were planning to seek an RF loan later in the year to shore up the long-drawn-out project that still reportedly needs at least $200m, to start the new line.

The tunnel boring equipment used to build the line couldn’t begin work on a second tunnel under the Volga’s right bank until this past December. It will take until this July for it to bore its way to the new central Gorkovskaya station, Alexander Tabachnikov told media. Then it may take another 18 to 24 months to turn the hole into a fully functional subway line tunnel.

How it all began

Unlike Moscow, which had its first subway line as far back as 1935, Nizhny Novgorod didn’t even think of a project concept until 1973, following the Soviet government’s decision to open subway systems in all cities with a population of over a million.

Between 1935 and 2005 seven Russian and eight CIS cities received their metro. Nizhny began construction of its first station, Leninskaya, in December 1977. The project was completed quickly—in less than ten months. By 1985 a 7.8km line with six stations was commissioned, but it was only a one-line system that was primarily designed to serve the highly industrial area across the Oka and Volga where GAZ and other major manufacturing companies were located.

Between November 1985 and December 1993 six more stations were put into operation. In the collapsing economy of the 90s the subway was no longer a priority, and it took the city another nine years to build one more station, Burevestnik; this time, the district of Sormovo, a center of shipbuilding and aviation works.

Bridging the gap…

Construction of a hybrid metro bridge to link the city center with its outlying industrial areas picked up in 2006-2008 after years of neglect. Automobile traffic on the bridge opened in November 2009 as planned, but only one roadway is operational.

More roads have yet to be built to fully connect downtown Nizhny; some are scheduled for completion later this year. As of now the new bridge is only 30% loaded, Mr. Tabachnikov said.

In March 2008 regional officials told the media at the Cannes’ MIPIM real estate show that the rail part of the bridge would be put into operation in 2010. With all the delays that have occurred, experts now find it difficult to predict when the bridge will really open for metro trains.

Like Nizhny’s airport, another white elephant?

What started out as a glorious transportation project, Soviet Russia’s third largest after Moscow and St. Petersburg, has become a modest, 15.5km line with 13 stations. Despite Nizhny’s 1.3m population (2006) just 89,000 passengers use the metro each day.

Novosibirsk, which edged out Nizhny to become Russia’s third largest city with 1.4m, has a metro which 212,000 people use everyday.

Nizhny’s current system, serving only half of the city, hardly eases Nizhny’s ever-aggravating transportation problem. The chief reason so few people use it is because there are no connecting branch lines. As a result, the subway racks up an annual loss of $10m.

Analysts also point that the system was badly planned from the very start. Although it runs along the heavily industrialized left river bank, the line inexplicably bypasses the densely inhabited districts by the Gorky Automotive Works (GAZ) and stops short of the center of another large area, Sormovo.

But the system’s downfall has always been that there is no metro in downtown Nizhny (the Volga’s right bank).

‘To be or not to be…’

In July 2007 officials announced that there would be at least three new stations in downtown Nizhny and further lines laid on the left bank within 72 months. Later in 2007 the region said it was considering a long-term project aimed at building a second metro bridge, this time across the Volga, and a subway extension to Nizhny’s satellite town of Bor on the other bank. With the exception of the line planned for Bor, all the other extension plans still reportedly stand.

Nizhny residents have been promised a lot over the years—from grandiose plans to revive the city’s ghostlike “international” airport to building an entirely new “city of the future” costing billions on Bor. Until the metro actually is extended to the city center, locals will continue to be forced to ride on crowded buses and ancient trams.
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Locations: Nizhny Novgorod

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