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Tijuana's Big Bus Quandary

— For the legions of nondriving workers who live in Tijuana's eastern colonias, the commute into downtown can be made one of three ways. One is route taxis, also known as collective taxis. They are the 1980s station wagons that prowl up and down fixed routes on Tijuana's major boulevards and avenues. Riders have to share the cab with seven or eight others and sometimes must sit in the rear-facing back seat. And a commuter from east Tijuana would have to take two different route taxis to get into downtown. The ride would cost about a dollar and take about an hour.

The second option facing the commuter is to take a bus. It would cost half what the route taxis cost, but the ancient buses are slow, crowded, and uncomfortable. And they only run twice an hour. Including waiting time, it's an hour-and-a-half trip.

The last option is to take one of the recently introduced taxis libres, free taxis. The orange or white cabs are smaller and more modern than the route taxis. They have meters, unlike the route taxis, and can travel anywhere in the city. They carry one fare at a time. A clever driver can shorten the trip to 45 or 50 minutes, but it will cost more than a route taxi.

Seeking an alternative to these methods, the municipal government spent most of a decade and five million pesos ($500,000) studying the idea of a light rail running from the San Ysidro border port, through downtown, and out to the eastern neighborhoods of the city. After several junkets by municipal officials to study light-rail systems in foreign cities, the idea was scrapped earlier this year. "The light-rail project," explains Máximo García López, Tijuana city councilman and president of the city's Economic Development Commission, "was too expensive, there weren't enough people interested, and the people that were interested decided the returns wouldn't be high enough to compensate for the investment. It got to a point where the city simply decided that it wasn't within the view of the city right now. It just requires too much money."

Now the city has presented a new mass transit idea, which they're calling the ruta troncal, which translates literally to "trunk route," loosely to "main route." Garcia describes the project. "What we are trying to do is transport more people faster and alleviate the traffic along the main east-west boulevard by using articulating buses. What we are trying to do is to be more efficient, organized, modern, and cheaper -- to be cheaper for the user."

"Articulating" buses are the double-long buses, sometimes seen on heavily traveled routes in San Diego, that bend in the middle. But the proposed ruta troncal project goes beyond simply buying new, longer buses. The two center lanes from the border, out Boulevard Agua Caliente to the eastern end of the city, will be set aside for the articulating buses exclusively. Garcia, a trim, well-dressed man in his early 30s, explains, "That will leave the right lanes, which are the most traveled lanes, for the rest of the traffic."

The center-lane plan creates the need to build pedestrian bridges from the sidewalk to stations built in the middle of the street. Passengers will pay their fares in the station instead of to the driver. The idea, Garcia says, is to simulate a rail system, such as the San Diego Trolley, using buses instead of trains or trolleys. From behind the desk in his richly furnished city hall office, he explains, "This model, that they are trying to implement here, is already being used in Bogotá, Colombia, and it was just inaugurated in Guanajuato, here in Mexico."

The projected cost of 50 to 80 million pesos is a quarter to a third of what would have been spent on the abandoned light-rail project. "Five million pesos," Garcia says, "or $500,000 will be for studies to determine things such as where the stations will be, because we don't want it to be, 'I want one here... I want one there.' We want them where they are most needed. The rest of the money will be used in the actual construction of the project: acquiring the buses, pavement improvements, and building the bridges and stations. Some streets will have to be widened as well."

The city's proposal calls for the route taxis to be taken off the ruta troncal to lighten the traffic on the route. Not surprisingly, the whole idea is meeting resistance from the existing transportation industry, including the powerful taxi unions and bus line owners. To combat the city's designs, these groups recently formed an umbrella organization that they're calling the Allianza Transportista, the Transportation Alliance. Heading the alliance is Abel Mora Rodarte. He's in his 50s, with salt-and-pepper hair and a thick mustache. Neatly dressed in slacks and polo shirt, he runs the alliance from a small, spartan office in the gritty La Mesa district east of downtown Tijuana. On the cinder block wall behind him hangs a PRI bumper sticker. Asked his objections to the ruta troncal projects, he answers in slow, measured speech. "First is the fact that there is no official version of the project. All the transportation people, we have formed a front with the idea to talk to the government about it. But the government hasn't wanted to hear us. And we haven't been able to get the government to present the project officially."

The second objection Mora mentions has to do with infrastructure difficulties. "We have spoken to the engineers association, the architects association, and what they have told us is that Tijuana doesn't have the capacity on the streets to handle those double buses -- the articulating buses -- that the government wants to use in the transportation system they are trying to implement."

Shrugging his shoulders in mock incredulity, Mora says, "We have very few lanes on the streets, and they have the idea to take two lanes for exclusive use of these buses?"

Mora continues, "Another problem we have with the project is unemployment. We have approximately 2000 taxis along that route. Those 2000 taxis, upon which 6000 families depend, would be eliminated."

"Part of the master plan," Garcia responds, "would be to convert a lot of the route taxis into free taxis that can operate anywhere in the city."

Mora and his alliance also see the city's move into mass transit as a power grab. "Transportation used to be a state-administered service," Mora explains. "The state would give you the permits and all that. Since the state government couldn't directly provide the service, they leased it, or franchised it to private organizations. Now, the municipal government's plan establishes the basis to monopolize and absorb all the different companies that are established; they want to be the only administrator of all transportation. The ruta troncal is a guise for the municipal government taking over the transportation system."

"The state government," Garcia responds, "did have control over transportation. But changes to the law were made in 2000 that give the city more regulatory power over local things such as transportation, permits to sell alcohol, and others."

Mora also accuses the city of getting into transportation to generate revenue for city coffers. "There's a million dollars a day generated in transportation," Mora continues. "A million users spending about a dollar every day is a million dollars gross. That's another reason the municipal government is so interested."

Garcia counters that the taxi union leaders are trying to preserve the flawed system to keep a good monetary thing going for themselves. "They can make, with the current system, much more money than with the system we are proposing. They don't want free taxis because it would eliminate the sitios, the places where the route taxis park and pick up fares. And that represents $500 per taxi to them, because each taxi pays $500 a year to be able to park there. With 6000 taxis in the city, that's $3 million a year."

Though he acknowledges the current transportation system in Tijuana isn't perfect, Mora says that polls show 70 percent of commuters are satisfied with it. "They don't know any other way," Garcia responds. "There hasn't been any other system, only the inefficient, disorganized, and expensive one we have. It would be worthwhile to see where they did that survey, if they could validate those figures. Because if you talked to passengers at any taxi station, you would see how dissatisfied they really are, especially when they have to ride in the back part of these station wagons that were designed to carry your groceries, not to carry people."

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