San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica's urban transit plan going nowhere

A 2008 initiative to ease the chaos in San José’s public transportation system has reached a dead end after government officials decided to halt the program due to poor planning.

Widely publicized when it was announced three years ago, the “Interlínea” bus system was supposed to create a network of bus routes that would permit metropolitan-area residents to circumvent downtown San José when traveling between outlying cities like Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago (TT, April 18, 2008).

According to the plan, the buses would have run from Desamparados, south of San José, to Moravia northeast of the city; from Moravia to La Valencia, north of San José; and from La Valencia to Santa Ana, west of San José.

Others routes would have connected Escazú, southwest of the capital, to La Uruca, on San José’s northwest side; La Uruca to Guadalupe on the northeast; and Escazú to Alajuelita, southwest of the city.

However, routes were poorly planned, and had the initiative moved forward, buses would’ve been required to travel through dangerous neighborhoods and on streets that lack traffic signals, said Rodrigo Rivera, an official at the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT).

A second snag was the bus fare, set by the Public Services Regulatory Authority. At a proposed cost of 350 ($0.70) per ride, the fare would have been higher than what passengers currently pay for taking a bus to San José and transferring.

It’s also not clear if the plan would have improved or worsened travel times. According to Rivera, passengers could’ve been stuck on routes that would’ve taken up to three hours.

Rivera said that MOPT engineers are now working on a new plan with different routes. According to preliminary details of the plan, a maximum of three bus lines would begin offering service by 2014.

Rivera would not discuss more specific details about the routes’ locations, however. 

He did say that MOPT officials plan on enforcing the use of bus lanes on major highways, a measure that aims to reduce traffic jams.

“[The new plan] is a way to modernize transportation in San José in a gradual and responsible manner,” Rivera said. “At the moment, we can’t provide a specific date for the launch of this new Interlínea system, but I can assure that I am very committed to it.”

The idea of creating more efficient and faster bus routes around the metropolitan area gained momentum during the second term of former President Oscar Arias (2006-2010). In 2007, Karla González, who headed MOPT at the time, opened the bidding process for seven routes. The winning bidder was a consortium called MPT S.A., which consisted of 40 private transportation companies.

MPT purchased 100 buses and hired 80 drivers who were scheduled to start routes on June 5, 2008. But on June 3, 2008, an administrative court halted the project due to irregularities in the bidding process.

According to MOPT’s Administrative Transportation Tribunal, some of the bidding requirements were published with errors, and not enough time was given to other interested companies to participate in the process. The court’s ruling left no option but to scrap the program.

In December 2010, Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez announced that the Interlínea bus route program would restart in the first quarter of 2011, but that didn’t happen.

While MOPT engineers design a new plan to improve bus service, officials are encouraging residents to use train service that connects San José with the western district of Pavas and the Heredia province.

Rivera said he also plans to negotiate with municipal officials to limit the number of vehicles entering the downtown San José area.

“We need to restructure the relationship between public and private transportation and how it interacts with San José,” Rivera said. “We are reaching chaotic levels of traffic jams and pollution.”

Revitalizing the Transportation Sector

Organizing public transportation is a vital step for any city wishing to survive, said Jonathan Agüero, a researcher at the University of Costa Rica’s Sustainable Urban Development Program.

“Cities can die if people don’t find them attractive to live in,” Agüero said. “If transportation services are not efficient, cities cannot grow.”

Agüero sees a lack of investment by past administrations as one of the leading causes of today’s traffic mess in the nation’s capital.

“Transportation authorities stopped planning the city 20 years ago,” Agüero said. “San José is at a critical point … hopefully adding quality bus lines will be a first step in repopulating the capital. That’s how it should be.”

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