San Diego For traffic-weary Tijuanenses, the happiness of the new year of 2002 ended quickly when they read reports of the city's light-rail project being scrapped. Though ground had never been broken, the tren ligero had been in the works for nine years. Running from the border crossing at San Ysidro, through the downtown and out to Cinco y Diez -- about four miles south of the border -- and back, the overhead-powered trolley promised to ease traffic in the heart of Tijuana. Substations along its route were to act as hubs for buses serving the outlying communities to the east and west of the line.
"The tren ligero idea started with Mayor Héctor Osuna Jaime," says Máximo García López, president of the City of Tijuana's economic development commission. "That's when they started doing the feasibility studies for the project. Mayor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán continued the idea and instituted a trust to pursue the light-rail idea. It was a municipal fund in order to pay for studies, for trips to other cities, for salaries."
A week of mild uproar followed the news that the project was being canceled. Then, a news conference was held at the Tijuana city hall on January 7, at which the city's secretary of economic development, Humberto Inzunza Fonseca, announced the tren ligero project was not dead. The trust, however, was to be folded. "In the last three years," García explains, "the trust had cost over five million pesos [$555,000]. That's why we liquidated it. But the project is still on."
Inzunza endured a barrage of questions from reporters on how the money was spent and, perturbed, responded, "The records are open to anybody who wants to inspect them."
Asked what the city got for the five million pesos, García, a tall, trim, well-dressed man in his early 30s, answers, "Mainly, the feasibility and the route. And they made contact with several possible investors in other countries -- France, Germany, China, Brazil, and the United States -- to keep on pursuing the light-rail system. They made several missions to different cities to see light-rail systems that are established already, to see the one that would be most convenient for us."
Any candidates for imitation in Tijuana?
"Curitiva in Brazil is a good model, and we have a trip to China pending to see a tren ligero system over there. And Vancouver, Canada, is another example of what could be done here."
With the light-rail trust now closed, García's office is in charge of the project. But he's trying to pass the buck. "Now," he explains, "a civilian board has taken over the tren ligero project. What we're trying to do is to get the private sector to form a council or a board to push the project. The city will support them, but not economically. Also, we're trying to get the private sector involved because of the fluctuations we've been having in the different city administrations toward the project, from warm to lukewarm to very hot. There's been no continuity. So we feel that with the private sector there will be more continuity because they have money invested in it. The city will support the project and try to help out with whatever money we can, but it's not a lot. We definitely could not fund the whole project."
Two hundred fifty million dollars was the figure given to the public at the January 7 press conference as the cost of the project. "That figure came from the private companies that are interested in establishing a light rail here," says García. The city lacks that kind of money in its coffers and so has turned to the Tijuana Economic Development Council, which is composed of Tijuana business executives.
José Jorge Ruiz, executive director of the council, says his group is "not married to the idea of a tren ligero. A mass-transportation system is what we're looking for, not just a tren ligero. When we started this project a long time ago, we thought we had one option, which was to build a light-rail system along Agua Caliente. It was to be elevated and electric. But because of the economic conditions of the construction companies, nobody made us a proposal. Now, we're looking at other options as well. It could be some double buses like you have in San Diego or they have in Bogotá, Colombia. A new option we have is to use diesel trains on the existing Tijuana-Tecate-Mexicali line. That would save a lot of money."
The oft-repeated projected cost of $250 million Ruiz believes needs to be reexamined. A Chinese corporation that has been in negotiations with Tijuana has made a preliminary offer significantly lower. "They say they can make it for half," Ruiz says, though he concedes that negotiations are in their infancy. "The Chinese have invited us there, and we were supposed to go. But, unfortunately, after September 11, we weren't able to go. Another reason we need to go on the trip is to validate if the Chinese trains are trustable, if they're of quality, if they have spare parts. Just imagine, we can't find a wheel for a train and they need to bring them from China, and all the manuals are written in Chinese. So we have to work out all of those problems. But they are very interested in making us a proposal. They are willing to do the research here if we pay for their hotel and food when they come here. Then they will make a proposal."
If it is to build a new transportation system, Tijuana will have to do it on its own. "We have tried to get support from the state and federal governments," García explains, "but it will be our project. There will be no money coming from the state or the federal government."
"When we talked to Fox when he first took office," Ruiz adds, "he said, 'Please don't expect that the government will do it for you. I can't help you with money.' But he said he could help us with things that don't cost money, like giving us existing train lines or avoiding taxes. One of the things that would help us is for all the importation taxes on the trains we buy from somewhere in the world to be waived. Fox could do that."
Aside from the companies that run buses and taxis in Tijuana, public sentiment is strongly behind the establishment of a rail system. "One of the requests that we've been hearing from the general populace," García says, "is that the mass-transportation system be reorganized and cleaned up. After public safety, public transportation is the second most important issue among the general public of Tijuana."
The route established by the now-defunct tren ligero trust starts at the border and goes through downtown Tijuana, then follows Agua Caliente Boulevard out through La Mesa to Cinco y Diez southeast of downtown. From there, it will return to the border via the Zona Rio using the existing rail system -- the old San Diego to Arizona line. "There's been interest expressed on both sides of the border," García says, "in connecting the current system in San Diego and the new system if it establishes itself. Even the idea of having cars not stop at the border but come right through has been discussed. But all of that is in the idea stage."
Asked what percentage of Tijuana's population of two million will be within walking distance of the line, García answers, "We don't have a very technical figure on that. But the project is not just to build a light rail but to reorganize transportation in Tijuana. The light rail will be the heart of the system, and everything else will be connected to it. Part of the program is to build transportation stations along the tren ligero that will connect [by bus] to other neighborhoods."
Both García and Ruiz are reluctant to make predictions as to when a transportation system will be up and running. "The project has been going on for nine years," García shakes his head and chuckles. "I wish...I hope that we will be able to at least start building in the next three years."