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Crowds of waiting passengers are a constant for Transantiago
Credit: La Tercera newspaper
Accents
Transantiago Shakes Up Chilean Transport and Politics
By Daniela Estrada

Multiple deficiencies in design and execution led to a chaotic premiere for the Chilean capital's new public transportation system.

SANTIAGO, Apr 2 (Tierramérica).- A new public transportation system that was intended to curb air pollution in the Chilean capital and improve quality of life has prompted hundreds of protests and the worst crisis yet for the Michelle Bachelet government. What about the controversial Transantiago project doesn't work?

Inaugurated Feb. 10, Transantiago modified transportation routes, cut its bus fleet from 9,000 to 5,000, and introduced electronic payment for fares.

The project came out of the administration of former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) and was launched by the Bachelet government in order to improve the quality of life of the 6.5 million people -- nearly half of the national population -- who live in Santiago. Transantiago was to cut travel time and eliminate older polluting vehicles in one of the Latin American cities with worst air quality.

But serious problems have caused some quakes that have driven Bachelet's popularity to its lowest level, prompting her to fire four ministers and issue an apology to the public. Furthermore, the much-touted environmental benefits of Transantiago are not yet clear.

"For me, Transantiago has meant anxiety, irritability and panic," summarized María Ester Silva, a 53-year-old secretary, in a conversation with Tierramérica.

The new system, inspired by Bogotá's successful Transmilenio, converted Santiago's main avenues into a network of "trunk" routes where modern, articulated buses circulate. Along those routes there are transfer stations, connecting passengers arriving in smaller vehicles from distant neighborhoods.

"I used to take a bus to work. It was an hour ride, but I had a seat and I slept. Now I leave 40 minutes earlier, take a collective taxi (with a fixed route and carrying several passengers) and a trunk bus that I have to wait 20 minutes for, and I arrive late every day," said Silva.

The government admits that it needs 500 more buses than the 5,100 budgeted. But for now it is using reconditioned older buses, and now "pirate" vehicles have appeared.

The authorities should be monitoring the transport companies to make sure they are meeting their timetable and route requirements, using video cameras, inspectors and heavy fines for violators.

But the computer system for tracking the fleets doesn't work very well, there are bus stops and segregated lanes yet to be built, and not all of the vehicles promised by the bus companies are out on the streets. The private firms say the articulated buses are very delicate, with frequent breakdowns, and repairs take time.

The city's 87-kilometer subway was incorporated into Transantiago as a trunk route.

"I'm scared to get on the subway because it is always full and I'm claustrophobic. My mother is 73 and she's also scared of it because she's had two hip operations," Silva said.

The transportation authorities have asked asthmatics, pregnant women, adults traveling with children, and people with hypertension or heart problems not to use the subway, which used to carry four passengers per square meter, but now packs in seven per square meter.

Two people have died on the subway -- from heart attack and stroke.

The air in Santiago is filled with toxic substances because the surrounding Andes and coastal mountains keep the wind from blowing air pollution away.

In 1996 the capital was declared saturated with particulate material PM10, ozone and carbon monoxide, and in a latent state for the concentration of nitrogen oxides. The 1998 Plan for Prevention and Atmospheric Decontamination included modernizing public transportation, but did not produce the hoped-for results, according to two foreign-led audits.

Gonzalo Parra, an administrative worker, 30, told Tierramérica that he now takes three "micros" (buses) and the subway to get to his job. Before, he rode just one bus. "Transantiago was implemented in a quick and chaotic way," he said.

The government quashed hundreds of protests in neighborhoods where Transantiago doesn't reach. Officials say that many peripheral areas have grown in the last few years, while the transportation network was designed in 2003.

On Mar. 26, Bachelet apologized to the poorer segments of the population in particular, and fired transportation minister Sergio Espejo, among others. Espejo's replacement, René Cortázar, has yet to implement any new measures.

Nevertheless, not all is bad news for Transantiago.

The new buses meet the EURO III international emission standards and they run on cleaner diesel fuel, with 50 parts per million sulfur.

Thanks to a contribution from the Global Environment Facility, an independent financial organization that provides grants to developing countries for globally beneficial environment projects, bicycle routes were included in the project and new technology acquired for measuring bus emissions.

"By going from 9,000 to 5,000 buses, pollution was substantially reduced," Rodrigo Pizarro, head of the non-governmental Terram Foundation, told Tierramérica.

But if individual car use keeps rising, as it has in recent weeks, in the long term Transantiago could turn out to be a negative, he said.

On Feb. 23, the Health Ministry released a preliminary study that found a "downward trend" for PM10. Although there are no official measures of noise pollution available, the general perception is that it also has decreased. The ministry promised more detailed reports for mid-year.

Sources from the government's National Environment Commission told Tierramérica that the true impact of Transantiago will be seen when it is completely up and running.

* Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent.

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