Municipal officials in Vilnius rolled out an aggressive public campaign this week to solicit feedback from city dwellers on a plan to build a modern 10-kilometer tram line from the Santariskes district in the city's north end to the central railway station.
In recent days, posters displaying a modern tram rolling through the city center and bearing the caption "A modern tramway in Vilnius" have been going up around the city.
The posters list the names and phone numbers of several senior city planning officials and invite the public to visit for more information.
A modern tram line is capable of high speeds along stretches of rail that are protected from other traffic by barriers, but functions like a normal tram in parts of the city with heavy pedestrian use.
Plans to make major improvements to the city's municipal transport infrastructure have been discussed since 1980. At that time, the construction of a subway had been approved by Moscow's central planners and it seemed that its construction was imminent.
According to senior Vilnius transport official Vidualdas Valeika, the subway became "fiction" by 1989. He described the present public transport system as "tragic."
"We want to be able to offer Vilniusites a better choice," he said, referring to the present options of riding dilapidated public trolleys and buses or driving one's car.
"We see ourselves that we spend much too much time sitting in traffic jams," said Valeika.
Presently there are two transport infrastructure plans in Vilnius, which is the only capital in the Baltics not to have a tram line.
One represents ongoing improvements and projects until 2005. A more flexible urban design plan containing possible large-scale projects stretches until 2015.
Systra, a French transport engineering firm, was commissioned to prepare a study and plan for the modern tramway.
According to Arnaud Dauphin, the Vilnius project manager, a subway is not feasible for Vilnius at this point. "A subway costs 10 times what an above-ground tramway line costs," he said. According to Systra's experience, one kilometer of tramway line costs 50 million ($12.5 million) to 60 million litas in France. This number could be a little lower for Vilnius thanks to more competitive labor costs.
Another problem is the geology of the city.
"The water table is high and there are many subterranean rivers here," said Dauphin. "This means you have to both dig and pump which adds tremendously to the cost."
Dauphin and his team of planners divided Vilnius into six areas and looked carefully at traffic flow, economics, demographics, as well as roads and bridges. They discovered that 60 percent of the city's inhabitants live on the north side of the Neris River while 60 percent of the jobs are on the south side. Only five bridges link the two parts of the city, creating major rush-hour congestion and, according to municipal officials, a huge "imbalance." The largest number of jobs is in the Old Town and around Gedimino Street, but most people live in dormitory high-rises far outside the center.
A sixth bridge is presently under construction at the foot of Vrublevskio Street.
"Historically, new roads and bridges do not ease traffic problems for very long," Dauphin said. He pointed out that there are 300 automobiles per 1000 people now and that this number is rising.
"The first thing Lithuanians do when they earn some money is not buy a house, but a car."
The influx of new cars also creates a burden for the trolleys and buses that share the same roads. According to Dauphin, the tramway would occupy a corridor next to the road and would not get caught in traffic.
Systra will deliver all of its findings to Lithuanian officials in autumn of this year. Most of the cost of the study was paid by France's Transportation Ministry.
Dauphin said that according to his experience it was conceivable from a technical viewpoint that the tram line could begin running in 2007 if the project is approved and financed.
In the meantime, the city is looking to gauge public opinion by making the planning process as transparent as possible.
"We've gone far beyond the letter of the law," said Jonas Jakaitis, a senior municipal designer in reference to the public consultations for the project. "We've sent registered letters and e-mails to interest groups to announce the project. Especially those that might have concerns regarding noise and the environment. We've posted information on the Internet, and we have a number of town-hall meetings scheduled."
According to Jakaitis, the modern tramway could change the entire municipal infrastructure in the long term and involve the construction of several more lines if the first one is successful.
"This project is not an if (project)," he said. "It's a question of when, where and how."