Bolivia's aerial transit system casts shadow on elections

Under President Evo Morales's watch, Bolivia spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a cable car system: worth it?

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    Bolivia's Cable Mi Teleferico is one of the world's most expensive aerial transit systems - and one of President Evo Morales's most visible public works projects [David Mercado/Reuters]
    Bolivia's Cable Mi Teleferico is one of the world's most expensive aerial transit systems - and one of President Evo Morales's most visible public works projects [David Mercado/Reuters]

    La Paz, Bolivia - Every day, Bolivia's 30-kilometer-long Mi Teleferico (My Cable Car) shuttles thousands of people between the working-class Aymara-majority city of El Alto and the country's administrative capital, La Paz. Mi Teleferico is the world's biggest urban cable-car transit system. It has 25 stations spread across eight lines, and is still not complete. With a price tag quickly approaching $1bn, the aerial system is also among the planet's most expensive. As Bolivians go to the polls Sunday to choose their next president, that price distinction is prompting critics to ask whether one of South America's poorest countries misspent money that could have been used to strengthen its existing bus system or better organise its roadways instead of sending commuters soaring above them.

    Soaring over serpentine roads

    A ride on Mi Telerifico costs three bolivianos ($0.45), and each car seats eight to 10 people. The system connects two cities separated by distance and altitude.

    El Alto is perched at 4,100 metres above sea level on the rim of a vast high plateau in the Andes, the altiplano. Its sister city, La Paz, sits in an enormous canyon directly below. The twin cities have a combined population of nearly two million people; their workforces are intertwined. Yet getting from one city to the other on land can take an hour or more. Brave souls try their luck on a few other dizzying routes that zigzag up steep canyon walls. But for years, most commuters either jumped on one of the hundreds of cramped minivans, soot-belching buses or taxi cabs that together turned the city's streets into a snarl of traffic because only one highway connects the two cities. 

    Mi Teleferico 3
    Thousands of people board Mi Teleferico cabins every day, each one can seat between eight and 10 riders [File: David Mercado/Reuters]

    In contrast, riding Mi Teleferico can seem like an act of meditation. The system's cable cars sway gently in the wind as commuters descend from El Alto to downtown La Paz over bonfires lit by yatiris - traditional Aymara healers - and traffic-clogged streets. Car horns fade into the background as children catch up on schoolwork inside the system's cabins. Cholitas - Bolivia's indigenous women, who sport bowler hats and colourful voluminous skirts - can be seen checking their smartphones as they pass above affluent neighbourhoods where - from the ground - houses are hidden behind security gates and massive walls.

    "It's a reliable and fast mode of transport," passenger Alvaro Chuquino told Al Jazeera. He also noted that he prefers cable cars because the area's streets are frequently paralysed by protests and roadblocks. During a recent strike by transit drivers earlier this year, ridership on Mi Teleferico soared to more than half a million rides, a new record.

    Mi Teleferico underscores Latin America's renewed interest in cable cars as a mass-transit solution that is uniquely suited to mountainous regions. In Medellin, Colombia and Mexico City, Mexico, cable cars augment existing surface and underground systems. And because they are growing in popularity in Latin America, there are greater points of comparison, which has led some critics to complain that Bolivia paid too much for its aerial transport system.

    Comparing cable car systems

    Mi Teleferico, which commenced operating in 2014, is one of Bolivian President Evo Morales's most popular projects. As Morales has campaigned for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office, the costs and benefits of the transit system have been closely scrutinised. Mi Teleferico has cost over $700m so far - a hefty price tag for one of South America's poorest countries. That amounts to about $23m a kilometre, while comparable projects in Mexico City and Medellin were completed for roughly $18m a kilometre or less. 

    Samuel Doria Medina leads the National Unity opposition party and is a critic of Morales's administration. He cited Mi Teleferico's large price tag and alleged poor planning as one reason for voters to reject Morales's bid for a fifth term.

    Bolivia's President Evo Morales, who is seeking a fourth term in office, sits in a cable car during an inspection of a new Mi Teleferico line in La Paz [File Reuters] 

    "Mi Teleferico is one of the big [problematic] things, because [of] its spending [roughly a billion dollars] with no studies, no coordination," he told Al Jazeera. In September, Medina endorsed Morales's leading challenger, Carlos Mesa, for president.

    Al Jazeera requested a comment from the Bolivian Ministry of Public Works, but as of the publication of this article, had received no response.

    However, Julia Schwarzler, a representative for Doppelmayr, the Austrian company that built the Mi Teleferico system, said in a statement: "A ropeway project is always extraordinary. It is always individually planned and designed to the requirements, needs and local situation. Therefore, comparing projects directly is not possible. The scope is different, [the] topography is different; stations, additional equipment, and many, many other things determine price calculations. That's also why it is impossible to compare the price by kilometre."

    A billion dollars of poor planning or a majestic legacy?

    For all its majesty, some critics say the cable car system is poorly planned and does not benefit less-affluent commuters. Although some Mi Teleferico stations connect directly with the six-year-old PumaKatari city-run bus service, the price per commute when transferring between the two systems nearly doubles. The cost of consistently riding in the sky and on land in a single day can be prohibitively expensive for many Bolivians.

    Although the country has seen a significant decrease in poverty in the past 15 years - it dropped from 60 to 39 percent from 2006 to 2015 - it is still one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Bolivia's annual per capita gross national income was $3,370 in 2018.

    "Unfortunately, the [two transportation] systems have not been planned jointly," Gustavo Bejarano, the transportation adviser to the La Paz mayor's office, told Al Jazeera. "The planning of our bus system has been done by the mayor's office, and the cable-car planning has been done by the central government."

    Critics argue that La Paz's cable car transit system is poorly planned and lacks sufficient connections to main arteries of the city's rapid-transit bus network [File: David Mercado/Reuters]

    Bejarano added that if Mi Teleferico had been better planned - at no additional costs - the cable car system could have fed directly into a main artery of the existing rapid-transit bus network.

    Cesar Dockweiler, the general manager of Mi Teleferico, defended the implementation of the cable car system. "We identified the most serious problems mainly in La Paz and El Alto, and then we studied many alternatives to solve them," he told Al Jazeera. "Metros, trains, buses, elevated trains - everything you can imagine, including cable cars - and we found that cable cars were a good option ... that they were indeed an excellent alternative for many reasons."

    Mi Teleferico "is good for the population, especially for the inhabitants of La Paz," commuter Franz Garro told Al Jazeera at the Ciudad Satelite/Qhana Pata station. "It helps us get between areas, especially since car traffic is choked and there are a lot of vehicles during peak hours. It's a great advantage."

    A 2017 study of the first phase of Mi Teleferico (a much smaller system than what exists today) by the Inter-American Development Bank found that cable-car users shaved 22 percent off of their commute times, a fact that not only helped further government spending on the system, but may also ultimately help boost Morales's re-election chances.

    Whether he wins or loses his next presidential bid, Mi Teleferico will stand as a testament to the last 15 years of Morales's rule. The majestic series of cable cars hovering over the region's urban landscape may be his most visible legacy, an ultramodern transit system that signals Bolivia's entrance into the 21st century.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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