San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Electric Transportation: Key to San José’s Future?

IMAGINE San José buses and taxis nolonger spewing smoke from their exhaustpipes because the metropolitan publictransportation system has been replaced byfleets of electric buses and taxis and alight-rail train that zips past traffic jams asit traverses the city. This vision may soundfuturistic, but it is exactly what theNational Power and Light Company(CNFL) and a commission of four othergovernment institutions are working toachieve.The Commission for Implementationof an Electric Train has reached the finalstages of an approximately 10-yearresearch and consulting process that couldculminate in 2009 with the light-rail vehicle’sfirst rounds through the city, accordingto Henry Chinchilla, director of energyconservation at CNFL.After completing one last bankingaccountability study that could take eightmonths, the commission, composed of representativesfrom CNFL, the Ministry ofEnvironment and Energy (MINAE), theMinistry of Public Works and Transport(MOPT), the Costa Rican RailroadInstitute (INCOFER) and the NationalConcessions Council will open a publicbidding process to hire a company to carryout the project, Chinchilla said.“INSTALLING a train is not likebuilding a house or a mall. In the course of10 years, more than 23 studies have beencompleted for the creation of this train,” hesaid, referring to studies carried out by foreigngovernments interested in a concessionfor the project.According to Chinchilla, if CNFL receives a sizeable donation, it would install thelight-rail tomorrow.However, the project competes forstate funds with other national prioritiessuch as projects in health and education,said Eric Bogantes, head of CNFL’s electrictransportation department.The governments of France, Brazil, theCzech Republic, Britain and Colombia,among others, are interested in executing theproject, worth an estimated $120 million.FOR example, the project the CzechRepublic expects to present to the commissionconsists of a 14-kilometer lightrail vehicle system that would wind itsway from Tibás, north of San José,through the former Atlantic and Pacifictrain stations in downtown San José, toLa Sabana, in the west, according to arepresentative of Arconsult S.A., a consultingfirm representing the Czech government,who asked that his name bewithheld for privacy reasons.That would be the first stage. In its nextstages, the Czech government would look atexpanding its light-rail system, which isfaster than a tram, to other Central Valleycities.“It could take 17-19 minutes to travelfrom Heredia to downtown San José – it isa somewhat futuristic vision,” the Arconsultrepresentative said, emphasizing that theproject, which is ready for presentation tothe commission, “is not a dream” and constructionof the light-rail’s first stage wouldtake only 21 months to complete.Almost 85% of the different projectproposals will follow the routes establishedby 16 kilometers of tracks that arestill visible around San José today,belonging to trains that operated from1889 to 1950, when the ticket fee was¢0.10 (10 céntimos, coins worth one hundredthof a colón that are no longer used),Bogantes said.CNFL has also examined the slim possibilityof replacing San José public buseswith electric buses.“CNFL still has a concession for thetramcar, but we do not have one to importand install buses,” Bogantes said.According to Bogantes, the CostaRican public transportation system is inhands of a private sector reluctant to switchover to electric transportation.Rafael Mora, financial manager ofBuses y Camiones de Costa Rica S.A., acompany that sells buses for urban, provincialand Central American public transport,said an average urban or provincial bus,covering the metropolitan area andprovinces such as Heredia or Alajuela, maycost between $80,000-95,000.In comparison, the electric bus purchasedby CNFL in 1997 to put on displayat events throughout the country cost$185,000, plus an additional $27,000 inaccessories such as replacement tires.“ELECTRIC buses are very expensiveand they run for about 12 hours onbatteries you have to charge for 24 hours,”Mora said.Chinchilla explained electric busesrequire battery changes, a procedure thattakes no longer than 10 minutes.“While the bus makes its rounds,another set of batteries needs to becharging,” he said, adding that one electricbus battery can cost approximately$5,000.To publicize the concept of electrictransportation, CNFL puts its bus on displayin as many public, cultural and diplomaticevents as possible. In 1997, formerU.S. President Bill Clinton traveled in theelectric bus to Braulio Carrillo NationalPark, on the road from San José to theCaribbean-slope town of Guápiles, whilevisiting the country with other leaders todiscuss U.S.-Central America relations(TT, May 9, 1997).Costa Rica does not yet offer much interms of electric vehicles for consumers,although new options are becoming available.THE Toyota Prius, a hybrid car thatruns on electricity and gasoline, arrived atPurdy Motors S.A. in August 2004,becoming the first and only environmentallyfriendly car of its kind for sale in thecountry, according to Purdy Motors marketingmanager Luis Mastroeni.The Prius generates no pollution,including noise pollution, according toMastroeni. It does not even require akey, but turns on just like a computer, hesaid.According to Mastroeni, Costa Ricahas the highest tax on car imports in theworld, at approximately 52%, and the governmentdid not grant import tax exemptionson environmentally friendly vehicles,which is why the Prius – meaning “first” inLatin – costs $34,900.Taxes on environmentally friendly carsare expected to be reduced by 30%, however,in a measure that could be implementedby the end of this month, accordingto the daily La República.

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