Billionaire Carlos Slim Bids on Metro to Slash Bogota’s 5-Hour Commutes

(Bloomberg) -- Jam-packed buses spewing clouds of black smoke battle angry taxi drivers, as motorcycles weave in and out to a cacophony of car horns. It’s every man for himself. The air quality is terrible.

Welcome to Bogota, the largest city in the Americas without a metro. For decades, locals have dreamed of a rail system to tame congestion in the capital city of 8 million, where daily commutes can stretch five hours. Now, city officials say it’s finally happening.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s Grupo Carso SAB de CV, Spanish construction giant Sacyr SA, China Harbor Engineering Co., are among the companies backing six international construction consortia bidding on the 24-kilometer elevated rail line, according to documents seen by Bloomberg.

Billionaire Carlos Slim Bids on Metro to Slash Bogota’s 5-Hour Commutes

Officials will award the project, estimated to cost more than $5 billion, in September, Bogota Finance Secretary Beatriz Arbelaez said in an interview. The city will take on as much as 2.5 trillion pesos (about $770 million) in debt this year, the majority of it from the local bond market, to help pay for the metro and other infrastructure needs, Arbelaez said.

“This city has been talking about building a metro for more than 50 years,” she said. “But never in our history have we been so advanced in every facet, including politically and financially.”

The track will pass through several poorer neighborhoods in the south of the city, skirt close to the Spanish-colonial center that houses government ministries and the presidential palace, to end a few blocks from financial district in the prosperous north of the city.

Arbelaez says she’s confident that the current administration will leave office at the end of the year with a project that is ready to go. The national government is contributing 70 percent of the funding.

Billionaire Carlos Slim Bids on Metro to Slash Bogota’s 5-Hour Commutes

Bogota’s previous metro plans stalled even as cities across Latin America spent heavily on public transportation systems in recent years. Panama City is opening its second metro line this year, Santo Domingo is adding new stations to its two-line system, and Santiago announced it will build two more lines to what is already South America’s most extensive system. Colombia’s second city, Medellin, already has a metro with three lines.

The winning company is required to bring at least $1.1 billion to the project and will be awarded a 25-year contract to construct and operate the line, which would open as early as 2024.

Bogota has introduced an alternate-day travel program, whereby cars are restricted from using the roads at certain times, and designed an extensive bus network, including a dedicated rapid bus system known as Transmilenio, to reduce congestion. It still wasn’t enough.

Previous metro plans have been scuttled by disputes over whether it should be elevated or subterranean, with previous mayors leaving office before ground was broken on their plans. That’s also a risk for this plan, with mayoral elections scheduled for October.

In the meantime, streets remain jammed and many people have their lives made misery by their daily commute.

Alexandra Rodriguez, 48, giggled and rolled her eyes when asked about the plan for a metro. She spends three and a half hours a day commuting from her home in an impoverished neighborhood in the extreme south to her office cleaning job in the financial district.

“I hope they do build it because it would help people like me a lot,” she said, standing in line with about 20 other commuters waiting to cram themselves onto a bus. “But they have been talking about it for years. I think we will be waiting for long time before they build it.”

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