June 01, 2002

Light Rail vs. BRT: Showdown in Panama City

In 2001, a French government-sponsored study concluded, unsurprisingly, that a French-built light rail system was the answer to Panama City’s traffic woes. The study dismissed bus rapid transit as being inadequate for Panama City’s capacity needs, claiming busways are only capable of moving 6,000 passengers per hour per direction, while Panama City needs to move 12,000 to 18,000 passengers per hour per direction in its major corridors.

These figures were disputed by ITDP experts in several major newspapers. Bogotá‘s TransMilenio bus system provides a current capacity of 27,000 passengers per hour per direction. Porto Alegre is reaching capacity figures of 25,000 passengers per hour while Sao Paulo has achieved as high as 35,000. Even with large subsidies from the French government, the light rail system would cost approximately $15 million per kilometer. This is three to five times higher than even the most modern BRT systems like TransMilenio.

John Bennett, President of the Civic Traffic Committee (Comité Cívico del Tránsito) comments:“Our organization, which is composed of the Panamanian Society of Business Executives and other groups, such as Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary, has been trying to influence changes in a sorry traffic and transport situation for over three years with little success.”

“We now worry that a wrong decision with respect to a transport system would further delay necessary changes by delaying development in the right direction and limiting economic resources to a broader solution than the one offered by a light rail system.”

Likewise, many groups have been concerned about the closed nature of the decision-making process to date.“It is extremely important that any final decision be made as a result of a participatory process,” says Felix Wing-Solis, who chairs the Environmental Citizenship Program for the Foundation for the Development of Citizen Liberty (Libertad Ciudadana), a Panama City-based NGO.

“Users, operators, experts and government officials, all of them have something to say that should be taken into account. This has not been the case, but there is still time to amend.”

A public forum on the direction of public transit in Panama City is being held on May 14, where the former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Penalosa, will be a keynote speaker. Many local groups are wondering if French employment is being served at the cost of adequate public transit for the poor in the developing world. Undoubtedly, the controversy is set to continue.

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