Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Which way for La Septima?

Get me out of this traffic jam! The daily drama on Seventh Ave. 
The debate over what to do about bringing efficient public transit to La Septima continues...and continues....and continuess...

Recently, newspaper columnists and political leaders like mayoral candidate David Luna have criticized Mayor Samuel Moreno's 'Transmilenio light' plan for La Septima. Today, it received perhaps its death blow, when Mayor Samuel Moreno agreed to yet again postpone the project, at the request of Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, who said that Bogotá "would collapse" with even more street projects right now. (Carrera 10 and Calle 26 are already partially closed for Transmilenio construction.)

The National Museum, on Seventh Ave. 
For those who don't follow the twists and u-turns of Bogotá transit policy, previous administrations had planned Transmilenio lines for Seventh Ave. The street carries lots of historical and cultural value for Bogotanos. It also carries lots of traffic and connects some of the city's wealthiest (and private car dependant) neighborhoods to downtown. 

Seventh Ave. is special because it passes by many city landmarks, including Plaza Bolivar, the Presidential Palace, the National Park and National Museum and others. All those historical landmarks make it more difficult to fit a mass transit line onto La Septima, which is considerably narrower than avenues like La Caracas and La Decima.

Preliminary work along Seventh has already begun - just a taste of the traffic distrubances to come. 
That was one reason the Moreno administration used to justify slimming down the original TM plans to a 'TM light' with only a single lane in either direction - and no special lanes at all in north Bogotá - as well as little urban renewal work. Critics say the solution's the worst of both options - lots of expense and transit disruption for a half-baked transit line with very limited capacity. But Moreno has pointed out that his much-planned and much-promised metro line would run parallel to the Seventh, serving much of the ridership demand along the corridor.

Is there anything good about this?
Many neighbors of the Septima, who I suspect live in their cars, argue that such an important and emblematic avenue shouldn't be ripped up for a half-baked transit project which will certainly generate horrendous traffic jams during at least one year of construction. But they ignore the reality that this very emblematic avenue is now chaotic and polluted, that it suffers chronic traffic jams and will only get worse without fundamental changes. Today's El Tiempo editorial points out that right now we've got the worst of both worlds.

The weak link in the mayor's reasoning is that the metro work won't happen soon - if ever, despite Moreno's and Santos' assurances. The Moreno administration is embroiled in a corruption scandal over the TM expansions on 10th Ave and 26th Street. His subway plans have been widely criticized. it's not clear where the money will come from. And Moreno's got barely a half year left in office. Candidates are already campaigning to succeed him - and the early leader, ex-mayor Enrique Peñalosa, has historically opposed a subway as too expensive.

So, the subway is unlikely to happen soon, if ever, which means that Seventh Ave. will carry more and more vehicles during the next years, making a full-scale TM line necessary. And, Seventh Ave. really is special for Bogotá - so it deserves to be done right, with well-designed stations, artwork, green spaces and improvements to public spaces along the way. 


La Septima even has Shakira and her new boyfriend stalled.
Update: At a public hearing in the City Council building this Wednesday, transit officials asserted that Seventh Ave. is simply too narrow to fit eight lanes of traffic which would be standard for a full-scale Transmilenio line and four more lanes for the rest of the traffic. The Transit Secretary also said that building an underpass planned as part of the full-scale Transmilenio system would require closing Seventh Ave. for two full years.

Rail Future for La Septima?
Other speakers at the meeting argued in favor of a full Transmilenio line for the avenue, declaring that a subway will not come soon, if ever. And several speakers argued for a streetcar or light rail line for the avenue. In my view, advantages of light rail would include the reduced pollution and less maintenance costs. Also, high-income people seem to be more inclined to ride rail than buses. However, light rail would be less flexible and require passengers to off-board to transfer to and from the Transmilenio system. 

Finally, one speaker mentioned possible World Bank-financing to turn Seventh Ave. into something called a 'green corridor.' A nice fantasy!

In any case, the politicos have agreed that construction on Septima won't start full-bore until the TM lines on Carrera 10 and Calle 26 are completed.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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