In Chile, Commuters Sue City over Transit System

Cities around the world have been trying to lure commuters out of their cars and onto mass transit with the aim of making urban life cleaner and greener. While a state-of-the art system installed in Chile has reduced pollution in the city of Santiago, a bungled adjustment has also left millions of passengers reeling — and hundreds of others suing the government.

The new system may be generating less pollution, but it is also generating mountains of complaints. What was once a 40-minute trip can now take 2 hours. As a result, commuters report losing their jobs for being late, or being forced to change jobs because routes have changed.

So troubled is Santiago's new mass transit system, known as Transantiago, that President Michele Bachelet made an unusual admission just days after its disastrous roll-out.

"It is not common for a president to stand before the nation and say 'Things haven't gone well," Bachelet said in Spanish. "But that is exactly what I want to say in the case of Transantiago.

The inhabitants of Santiago, especially the poorest," Bachelet said, "deserve an apology."

Bachelet gave her speech in March. But Transantiago is still the subject of newspaper headlines, editorial cartoons, and congressional hearings.

On a recent day in a train station, commuter Alejandro Gonzales said that a million more people are now crowded onto the subways since Transantiago did away with many of the old bus routes. But even though the subway goes to more places, Gonzales says, it still cannot accommodate all the rush-hour riders.

"When the trains get here, everybody rushes and people hit each other, shoving and pushing," Gonzales said. "So you get to work all stressed out. You leave all stressed out. I'm just waiting for someone to hit me. I'll hit them back."

Deputy Patricio Hales runs the Congressional Committee investigating Transantiago. He is doggedly pursuing the architects of the transit system, which has already cost the taxpayers $290 million in bail-outs in just seven months of operation.

Hales says a shameless lack of coordination radiates from the 1,500 pages of testimony, including that of the Public Works minister.

Transantiago removed thousands of run down buses from the streets, and failed to tell the public where the new routes would run. The new fare cards were so badly administered that a moratorium had to be declared on all bus fares.

But there is no nostalgia for the system that existed under Chile's dictatorship and persisted for 17 years more. Deputy Hales says privately owned buses careened thru Santiago's streets, belching black smoke and competing for passengers in what appeared to be more a high-speed chase than a mass transit system.

The system has been slashed from 3,000 private companies to just 10. But that hasn't brought more efficiency — and Hales says it represents a failure of free enterprise.

Transantiago has also spawned Chile's largest class-action suit. Community leader Victor Tapia discovered the new transit system did not run to his old place of employment and he was forced to change jobs.

He united some 800 other commuters who suffered similar complications and who are claiming damages of $38,000 each. But Tapia, a carpenter, says the idea is not about getting rich, but about getting respect.

"It's an intelligent way to protest," Tapia said in Spanish, "and it's what the constitution assures us: to live in dignity, in a clean environment, and that hasn't happened under Transantiago."

Last week's headlines brought more bad news for Santiago's weary travelers: the companies that operate Transantiago said they may go bankrupt next year, unless it gets either a fare increase or another infusion of public funds.

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