The Bogotá City Council and national government approved a 15 trillion pesos ($4.9 billion USD) agreement last week to co-fund the city’s long-awaited metro system, and the parties now have until November 11 to iron out the details before a law kicks in that would shelve the project until after next year’s presidential elections.
The law, known colloquially as the “Law of Guarantees,” prohibits governors, mayors, and other public officials from entering into “inter-administrative” contracts that use public resources within four months of an election, a distinction that would include the proposed metro. The goal of the law is to maintain a level playing field during political campaigns.
That means that the March 11 congressional elections and May 27 presidential election give officials less than a week to tie up several loose ends — or face a six-month delay.
First, Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa has to give the project his seal of approval, which he is expected to do officially. Then the city and national governments must sign the agreement, according to the Ministry of Transportation. But before any agreements can be signed, reports Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, the parties must agree on how the money will disbursed each year and who will be responsible for picking up the tab if the project runs over budget.
The deadline comes 12 days after the city council voted 30-10 to approve 6.08 trillion pesos (roughly $2 billion USD) in funding over 25 years to pay for the elevated metro system. On October 25, the National Economic and Social Policy Council (Conpes) announced that the national government would allocate 9.08 trillion pesos ($2.9 billion USD) over the next 30 years for the project. The city said it will set aside half of the revenue it receives from its gasoline surcharge to come up with the money. Construction is projected to take five years.
If they miss the deadline, it is unclear what will happen to the agreement. On one hand, the two parties could reconvene in six months and pick up where they left off. On the other, the political landscape of the city and the country could be drastically different, and there is no guarantee that the metro system would still be a priority.
Peñalosa is facing a possible recall referendum, 102 Senate seats and 166 House seats will be up for grabs in the Colombian Congress, and a new president will be getting ready to set up shop in the Casa de Nariño.
But policymakers have said that the city and national governments will have no trouble meeting the deadline. “Before the Law of Guarantees takes effect, the contract between the nation [national government] and the district [city government] will become a reality,” Andrés Escobar, director of Metro de Bogotá SAS, told local publication Publimetro.
Under the current plan, the proposed elevated metro line would include 15 stations and stretch nearly 24 kilometers from Bosa in the southwest of the city to the intersection of 72nd Street and Caracas Avenue, according to Metro de Bogotá SAS.
The agreement also includes funding to expand the TransMilenio system on several streets — Boyacá, Ciudad de Cali, and 68th Avenues — in the western part of the capital. The city hopes to start accepting bids for contracts next year and break ground in 2019.
Once the planned system is operational, 20 trains will crisscross the city each hour, carrying an estimated 72,000 passengers in each direction, Luis Fernando Mejía, director of the Department of National Planning, told Spanish newspaper El País.
The metro system has been a long-standing, hot-button issue in the city. Former Bogotá Mayor Carlos Sanz de Santamaría first brought up the idea of building a metro in 1942 to complement the city’s now-defunct trolley system, according to El Tiempo.
Since then, more than 20 feasibility studies have been conducted as policymakers have struggled to keep up with the city’s rapidly expanding population and severe traffic congestion. An estimated eight million people currently live in Bogotá, a 43% increase since 1995, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).
The project’s supporters have touted Peñalosa’s elevated metro plan as a panacea of sorts for the city’s transportation ills. Patricia Mosquera, a city councilmember who voted for the proposed agreement, called the metro “the dream of every Bogotano.”
Juan Pablo Bocarejo, the city’s transportation secretary, shared a similar sentiment during the city council’s hearing on October 31. “The definitive solution to the [city’s] transportation problems will be intermodal [with] the best possible metro line integrated to more Transmilenio lines, which will allow [us] to handle a larger number of passengers with the quality of service that Bogotanos deserve,” he said
The project’s detractors say that an elevated metro is more expensive, won’t do much to reduce traffic congestion, and could reduce the value of properties located next to the metro line.
Some the project’s opponents, however, support building an underground metro and have spoken out against Peñalosa’s plan, citing a recent study by global services firm Deloitte that suggests that the proposed elevated metro would be more expensive to build and maintain.
Former President Ernesto Samper, who is in favor of an underground metro, has called Peñalosa’s plan “madness.”
In 1998, Samper and Peñalosa, who was serving his first term as mayor at the time, signed an agreement to build a metro. But Samper alleges that the mayor later reneged and “took the money and used it for TransMilenio lines.”
“I want to call on citizens, Bogotanos, and everyone who lives in Bogota to oppose this madness,” Samper told local newspaper El Espectador in September. “The elevated metro is not going to solve the city’s traffic problems.”
Former Bogotá Mayor Antanas Mockus has also criticized the plan, likening the project to “selling hope.”
“The metro is not going so solve a damn thing,” he told El Espectador in July. “It is going to be a symbol… The number of people who are going to ride the metro is minuscule compared to the number of people who need transportation.”
Peñalosa, however, has hailed the city council’s vote as “historic.”
But with just a few days left before the deadline, Bogotanos will soon learn whether the proposed metro is one step closer to reality — or if they will continue their decades-long wait.