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Cities around the world, hoping to make urban life cleaner and greener, are trying to lure commuters out of their cars and onto mass transit. In Santiago, Chile, a state of the art system has reduced pollution.

But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, a bungled start-up has left millions of passengers reeling and hundreds of others suing the government.

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

MICHELE BACHELET: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: It's not common for a president to stand before the nation and say, things haven't gone well, she said. 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.

That was March. To see why Transantiago is still dominating the headlines, cartoons and congressional hearings, we descend into a cavernous subway station.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

MCCARTHY: Riders literally inched their way down broad corridors, bulging with humanity, sullen and unsmiling. Queues are long and tempers short. Someone faints, but there's no room to fall down.

Shaking his head, commuter Alejandro Gonzales says, 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, he says, it still cannot accommodate all the rush-hour riders.

ALEJANDRO GONZALES: (Through translator) When the trains get here, everybody rushes and people hit each other, shoving and pushing. 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.

MCCARTHY: Gonzales says the politicians who put the system in place are exempt from the chaos.

GONZALES: (Through translator) I'm not okay, but the bosses are okay. The politicians are doing okay, they have chauffeurs. They don't have any idea what it's like.

PATRICIO HALES: They saw numbers, streets, maps. They didn't see the city. They didn't see people.

MCCARTHY: Meet Deputy Patricio Hales, president of a congressional committee investigating Transantiago. He's doggedly pursued the architects of this transit system that has already cost the taxpayers $290 million in bailouts in just seven months of operation. Hales says a shameless lack of coordination radiates from the fifteen hundred pages of testimony, including that of the public works minister.

HALES: He repeat two hours. We make exactly what we was commanded. Yes, but you never knock the door of the ministry of transportation to said, hey, hello, let us make this work together. I asked him this and he answered, nobody called me.

MCCARTHY: Transantiago removed thousands of rundown 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 neither is there nostalgia for the system that existed under Chile's dictatorship and persisted for 17 years more. Deputy Hales says privately owned buses careened through 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.

HALES: Feeling the dictatorship, the ministry said this must be a free market. Then, we arrived to 13,000 buses. And was crazy.

MCCARTHY: The system has been slashed from 3,000 private companies to just 10. But that hasn't brought 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 fellow travelers, some 800, 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.

VICTOR TAPIA: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: It's an intelligent way to protest, he says, 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 without a fare increase or another infusion of public funds.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.

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