When you meet a politician from Prague’s Municipality Council who is also in charge of a city district, you simply cannot avoid some topics, even though some of them have been discussed many times over the years. It was no different when I was talking to Tomáš Portlík, Prague Councillor, Deputy Mayor of Prague 9 and Chairman of the Prague branch of the Civic Democratic Party.
When you think of Prague, two other words come immediately to your mind: traffic and the bypass. I'm over fifty; tell me - do I have a chance to live to see the bypass finished?
It’s not about how old you are, but how long you have to live (he laughs). However, I just turned forty-one and I would also like to know. Of course, I would love to see Prague with lighter traffic; what’s more, the bypass is simply a must. Despite the voices of the supporters of the new “Green Order” - while I consider ecology an important thing, mind you - in this respect, it does not matter whether in ten, fifteen or twenty years, the cars will run on electricity, hydrogen or anything else, as they are sure to increase in numbers. The quality of the engines will change, but not their quantity, while mobility with a reasonable amount of comfort will still be important for Prague citizens. There will not be three times more cyclists and twice less cars here, we are not flat Amsterdam. We just need the infrastructure.
What prevents us from getting it?
Any such big project - the Blanka tunnel complex could be an example - is very difficult to enforce, design, getting all building permits and the like. And it's twice as hard to have the courage and start it. Just remember what criticism Blanka received, what difficulties accompanied the whole construction process. You never know what such a complex and large building will face and how the costs will increase in the end. Despite all this, the then mayor Pavel Bém had the courage to push the project through. I think that every Prague citizen passing through the Blanka tunnel appreciates its existence. So, you have to manoeuvre with a certain budget in an environment where you don't know where you could be stepping on a mine, figuratively speaking. You must not be a populist, must not lie to people that you can do it better and solve it faster. You have to work hard for it, rather than just writing Facebook posts. Otherwise, you could end up like Mr. Mayor Hřib in that television show last year, where he said that he would have the zoning permit by the end of the year, being unaware of the fact that it got postponed to the middle of next year. If the mayor doesn’t have this information, how can there be any chronological order in it? He is the one who should know the deadlines, control the government, push the Minister of Transport, the Prime Minister. Sometimes, I am afraid that it is more important to him how many media wrote that he had fallen out with the Prime Minister rather than to see them writing that, God forbid, he and the Prime Minister agreed on something.
I expected you to mention money first, not courage or hard work...
Clearly, the project is very costly, that goes without saying. By the way, it’s all very nice to place a city bypass underground; only, there is such a tiny snag: at the moment, Prague has a deficit of repairs worth 33 billion, a mobility plan, which fails to include a lot of things, worth 113 billion, and the new bypass, if constructed now, is estimated by experts to cost around 80 to 100 billion. If I add that the current city leadership is doing virtually nothing in terms of budget to increase the investment pace and to have more investment reserve and that there are about two billions available every year, I have to ask - even if I got all the permits now, where do I get the money? ? And if I take a loan, how can I pay it back? This is what has to be solved in the first place.
When you started talking figures, you were critical about the Prague budget. Why is it so bad?
My biggest complaint is that it not ambitious enough, that over the year or so since the elections, there have been no significant cuts in the chapters of write-offs of things that we do not need - in all areas - and, on the other hand, an increase in other priorities. Under the Civic Democrat governments, when we were preparing budgets with Bohuslav Svoboda, we committed ourselves to increase budgets by about five to seven percent year-to-year. But you really have to work with that budget, you need political consensus, and you have to convince competent people of your vision. Do you know what my vision is? We all know that Prague will need huge investments in infrastructure. Unless this is done, the development of the city will be hampered. You cannot build flats unless you are able to build schools, you can hardly build flats when not only cars, but also public transport, which is, by the way, one of the best in Central Europe, cannot cope. You can hardly build flats if you are unable to ensure transportation. It means huge costs. I would also expect that we would address the issue of the elderly, that we would think about what we will do with our parents when they grow old and suffer from some of the civilization diseases that are exponentially growing. Instead, Ms. Councillor Johnová reassures us that every child is sure to take care of his or her parent. I see my 75-year-old mother looking after her 95-year-old mother, and I'm not really sure that everyone is as capable as her. Or, what if the elderly have no children, or what if their children live in a foreign country? The city has to create a social network of its own, only family relationships won’t do. And yet, the city stagnates significantly in this respect, while it deals with the ban on pandas in the Old Town and beer-bus rides. Another thing - projects on P + R parking have been stopped on the grounds that they are megalomaniacal. The coalition representatives like to compare the quality of life in Prague to Vienna, which has 16 thousand P + R parking places, while Prague has 3 thousand and needs at least 12 thousand. This is a problem that a parking lot for 200-300 cars cannot solve. And this is something that is important not only for the citizens of Prague.
Are at least some of these issues, however, the responsibility of the districts, instead of the municipal council?
You know, politics is a very difficult discipline, as you need to be able to communicate, discuss, negotiate and find common solutions. That's a big handicap of the Pirates, who were not able to realize that. Yes, Prague is complicated because of a great number of districts. As a mayor, you must be able to communicate with all of them, with their town halls, funded organizations. You must know your priorities. So, when I say that urban construction is crucial, I have to create conditions for development. However, as a mayor, I must know that if I pursue this policy, I must also know what I will do in the developing locations.
Can you be more specific?
The apartments and schools that I already mentioned they are joined vessels. If we talk about “my” Prague 9, the development in Poděbradská and Kolbenova streets also entails the construction of a school, which the developer will not pay for. Elementary school U Elektry for 700 children will cost 450 million. You'll get 50 to 60, maybe even 80 million, but no one will pay the whole construction, by no means. In addition, you have to think of what you have to do to prevent the increase of the number of flats, and therefore surge in inhabitants, as not to get Kolbenova and Poděbradská streets completely jammed. And how many billions you will need for all this. As a mayor, you must be aware of all these related issues, you must talk to the city districts, not to force them into it. You have to calculate that if you put the traffic underground, it will be nicer, but significantly more expensive, which can slow down the whole project by maybe six years. Can you afford a six-year delay in the development of Prague? And, if I don't get money from the government, where do I get it? After all, such questions aren’t that complicated, just common sense and awareness of the context. And yet, you don’t hear anyone asking them.
Well, that’s not exactly fun talk to about. Let's try and end on a positive note; what can Prague citizens look forward to this year?
I haven't read anything positive from Mr. Hřib yet. That is, if you don’t consider it positive to end relations with Beijing and to establish them with Taipei. I will answer a different question: what I, as a representative of the opposition, will do so that something positive happens. I will start by saying that when everyone is terribly clever and constantly talks about right-wing parties cooperation, but does nothing for it afterwards, I will work to get the right-wing forces within the capital - and politicians with right-wing mindsets in the left-wing parties - to really start thinking about how to make living in Prague more comfortable for its citizens. In addition, I, as part of opposition, will want to see how the responsible councillors administrate the chapters, their budgets, and what they are going to present for next year. So that it doesn’t happen that there would be simply nothing, no structural change, only survival operation mode again. We, as the Civic Democrats, will certainly urge, Mr. Hřib about the bypass and P + R parking; we will not let this go. Because the term is four years, and he has wasted a year of that already, which is a lot of time. Naturally, we are ready to help him the same way I helped him last year when I proposed savings of one and a half billions. Which, the Mayor also approved, forgetting to mention that originally, it was a proposal of the Civic Democratic Party. Certainly, we will want no quarrels about who is a Chinese or Russian spy in the municipality council, so that we have more time for the really important things. We will appeal to at least start planning homes for the elderly. Lastly, we want to achieve the vision of comfortable and easy to drive through Prague with sufficient infrastructure. We will just try more to make them really do some work, as I have to admit, this was something what we failed in a little last year.
Among other things, parking zones are a persistent topic in Prague. “Unfortunately, nothing new has been done in this respect during the year and a quarter since the elections; the original zone system is still being worked with,” says Martin Portlík, adding that the initial intention was to protect the city centre. “It is true, and I have to be strict with myself here, that under the Civil Democratic Party government the system spilled over to Prague 2, while nobody doubts that Prague 1 is the real centre, with maybe parts of Prague 2, Prague 5 and Prague 7 in the slightly broader sense. At that time, everyone should have learned that the system of paid parking zones in Prague cannot be developed this way. The whole system should be divided into two parts. Firstly, we should protect the city centre and clearly define what we consider the centre. The second part should then be a sort of an envelope of the centre. This should result in the protection of the centre, while, at the same time people in the envelope cannot be left as castaways on a desert island. To let them pay for parking in their district, while, we have to admit, more parking permits are issued than there are parking places, and they cannot park with their permit in the neighbouring districts. Moreover, we have to say - is this just another form of taxation for Prague citizens, or is it really a service I can offer them as a politician?”