September 01, 2002

The Highway To Inequality: The Citizens of Santiago Fight the ‘Costanera Norte’

According to Ciudad Viva (Living City), a local non-governmental organisation formed from the original anti-highway coalition, “the communities succeeded in saving a good part of the neighbourhoods that would have been destroyed, but now the entire city is touched by the damage to its river.”

Chile’s new environmental legislation requires that the project undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment with public participation. The project received fierce opposition from the Architectural Society, the Engineering Society, the Chilean Society of Transport Engineers, environmental organisations, and community groups for economic, environmental, urban design, and equity reasons.

Subsequent design changes have since increased costs from US$ 120 million to US$ 480 million, of which the taxpayers will pay US$ 120 million.

The events have uncovered a serious lack of independence from CONAMA, which has acted as both project proponents and the deciding regulatory body. The decision to build the highway was made by the National Ministers who were directly chosen by President Richard Lagos, the principal force behind the project. The government has never officially produced the written decree authorising approval, nor has it produced the studies of social benefit analysis that are needed to justify construction.

Why has this happened and who will be benefiting from this project? These are key questions for one of the world’s most polluted cities, with more than 4,000 annual deaths attributed to air contaminants. At the same time, Chile already suffers from significant inequality in income distribution, with only Brazil having greater inequality levels on the continent.

The government believes that the highway will reduce pollution and congestion, despite claims to the counter from local transport engineers. International studies indicate that new highways become 90% filled within a five-year period, most of which is induced traffic that would not have occurred without the new roadway.

Moreover, the concessions given to the private sector firm give a profit motivation for the firm to encourage as much traffic as possible. In less than three years, Santiago will have significantly more cars, contamination, and congestion.

On the third of June of this year, a rainstorm lasting 72 hours swelled the size of the Mapocho River tenfold. In only 24 hours half of the city was below 80 centimetres of water, and of course, it was the poorest communities that suffered the most with 100,000 persons made homeless and loss estimates between US$ 180 million and US$ 230 million.

The severity of the flooding was worsened by the road works. Despite the millions dedicated to construction, there was no consideration of the highway’s impacts on drainage and the blocking of the river’s natural flow.

Santiago, a city of 5 million persons, generates 11.1 million trips each day. Of these, 43% are made by microbus, 7% by and underground metro, 20% by private automobile, 1.4% by taxis and “colectivos” (taxi vans), and 27% by walking or cycling. The Costanera Norte highway project will only serve the 20% that travel by car, and specifically those living in the wealthiest communities of Vitacuar, Las Condes and La Dehesa.

With the same investment, one could finance 96 kilometres of exclusive bus corridors with articulated buses of the quality of Bogotá‘s TransMilenio, which costs approximately US$5 million per kilometre. The difference being the realisation of an efficient, clean and safe transit service that would serve the remaining 80% of the population. Or such funding could even finance 75% of the drainage system that would avoid the terrible tragedy of the recent flooding.

Public works are a mechanism that can help direct the private sector towards efforts that reduce income inequality. Investments in road projects only serve to stimulate more auto use, urban sprawl, and pollution. More investments in parks and plazas, sidewalks, cycle ways, and public transit have positive impacts on health, environmental quality, safety and security, public space, and quality of life, especially amongst the poorest communities.

“Growing with Equity” was the campaign slogan of President Lagos. Now, US$ 120 million is being obligated to subsidise a privileged minority in order to have the perception of a faster and more comfortable commute. This amount is 120 times more than has been invested in reversible or exclusive lanes for buses (barely US$ 1 million).

The exclusive busways, though, would greatly improve travel times (15 minutes per trip), reduce contaminant levels (17%), and produce financial benefits through significant increases in efficiency and productivity.

A member of Ciudad Viva comments, “At least we hold a sense of pride in waging a great battle against the ill-advised, illegal, corrupt, and unethical actions that have characterised this project.” Ciudad Viva, though, will continue to explore new legal actions, alliances with other groups, and a campaign to dissuade potential investors from buying the necessary bonds for this controversial project.


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