Colombia’s decaying and inadequate transport infrastructure is clearly among the country’s top challenges. Poor roads and railways are one reason why the country fell in global rankings of competitiveness in tourism. Standard & Poor’s, a credit rating agency, recently cited infrastructure as one of three key factors keeping Colombia from attaining an investment grade rating, long coveted by the country’s economic policymakers.
Perhaps the only recent bright spot has been urban transport in Bogota and Medellin. The Colombian capital was the first large city in Latin America to replace a chaotic system of competing private bus companies with a revolutionary bus rapid transit system, the Transmilenio. Medellin’s MetroCable, an aerial cable car connecting poor hillside slums to economically vibrant areas downtown, has helped hundreds of thousands of people avoid a lengthy and dangerous commute on winding potholed roads that weave through gang territory. Many Latin American cities now have their own version of the Transmilenio, and most others are considering inaugurating one. The MetroCable has been copied in places including Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo do Alemao slum.
In the meantime however, intercity travel has remained costly an inconvenient. Ten years ago, the main complaint from travelers along rural highways was not congestion or potholes, but rather crime. In this sense, recent improvements in safety along major roads have had the politically inconvenient side effect of revealing their terrible inadequacy. For example, Bogota and Medellin, Colombia’s two largest cities, are only 160 miles apart geographically, but driving from one to the other, though much faster than it used to be, still takes eight hours at best. Shockingly for two cities with outstanding innovations in public transport, the roads that connect them are still narrow, winding and often very congested.
The flipside of Colombia’s poor infrastructure is that building a single tunnel or widening just one highway can make an enormous difference. A tunnel cutting through the mountains that separate Medellin from quaint colonial towns west of the city has sparked a boom in tourism in the region. A similar tunnel project to the east would cut the travel time between the city and its international airport from about one hour to less than twenty minutes. Villavicencio, a city on the foothills of the Andes and chief gateway to the country’s vast eastern plains, used to be considered worlds away from Bogota, separated by a somewhat dangerous six-hour drive on windy roads. Thanks to a new highway, today Bogotanos can reach the plains in less than 90 minutes.
The ambitious infrastructure improvements proposed under the new National Development Plan – including doubling the number of two-lane intercity highways, upgrading old airports and reviving rail networks – would cost an estimated $17b between now and 2014. This is not cheap, but the government, which seems serious about reducing the deficit, estimates that this is feasible if half of those funds come from private investors.
Indeed, many people with big pockets see in Colombia’s commitment to infrastructure an opportunity to make a lot of money. Brazilian mining baron Eike Batista, the world’s eighth richest man, recently announced his intention to invest some of his billions in the country’s infrastructure projects. Perhaps most notably, China and Colombia have discussed the idea of building a railway connecting Colombia’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, a plan that aims to rival the Panama Canal.
But given the country’s fiscal deficit and many other challenges – escalating drug gang violence, a massive land reform initiative and stubbornly high poverty rates, just to name a few – it is essential that the country take on this task wisely and carefully. The biggest risk facing the infrastructure boom is clearly not money, but the distortive effect of petty and corrupt politics. German Cardona recently told Dinero magazine that upgrading the country’s infrastructure “is not a problem of funds, but of good management to speed up the projects.”
Take, for example, the Bogota Metro. The capital, dotted with hills and bordered by mountains, is clearly not an ideal city for a subway system. Rather than replace the Transmilenio, the Metro plan would create only one subway line running parallel to an existing bus route. At best, it would boost the city’s self esteem and temporarily reduce congestion, but at an enormous cost. Nevertheless, this politically popular idea got Samuel Moreno elected a few years ago. Among local mayoral hopefuls, it is now taboo to express any reservations about the plan for a Metro.
Bogota and Medellin’s extraordinary periods of creative urban policy and infrastructure improvements encouraged Colombian voters and politicians to dream big, but they should also remember to dream wisely. Unfortunately, as in most countries, the politics of major infrastructure projects in Colombia is complex, personal and often dirty. The country has a great opportunity and plenty of money to transform its transport infrastructure and, in turn, its economy, but if badly managed this process could also produce plenty of pork.