French firm will study possiblity of urban tram system

French Ambassador Fabrice Delloye tries to ease the concerns of bus company operators who were in the audience. A.M. Costa Rica/Andrew Rulseh Kasper

San José municipal officials are taking a serious look at the possibility of an urban tram system in the heart of the city to address the ever-growing problem of congestion.

City officials, including Mayor Johnny Araya Monge, who has been a vocal proponent of a tram system, reached an agreement Thursday with French transportation engineering company SYSTRA to begin a plausibility study, which will take into consideration multiple factors, including costs and operations associated with implementation of such a transportation system.

The study will begin Monday and is expected to be completed early next year. More than $600,000 for the study was provided by the French government. But the study is only the initial cost realized in the five-year undertaking of installing a tram system whose final expenditures could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tram systems are common in many major metropolitan areas around the world as a viable means of urban transport, running on electricity and efficiently moving large numbers of people without the byproduct of fumes. But the viability of a tram system in San José was not fully embraced by all those present at the forum.

Although Rodrigo Rivera Fournier agreed that something needed to be done to address insufficient transportation systems of San José and its surrounding areas and called the proposal of a tram modern and interesting, he said the final infrastructure plan may have to integrate many approaches and consider the fiscal component. He is a vice minister of Obras Públicas y Transportes

“It’s not only if I like the idea of a tram or not, it’s whether or not we can afford to do it and people will use it,” Rivera said. “The cost is huge to consider.”

He said the study will be the first of many steps in considering such a plan, that could cause complications with everything from synchronizing a tramway with stop lights, installing the tracks and coordinating with local transportation systems already in place.

Some present at the forum raised concerns that the new system would have an adverse affect on bus companies and their ridership. But the French ambassador to Costa Rica, Fabrice Delloye, tried to ease their concerns that the tram would shut the buses out of the transportation equation.

“I believe it’s a national project,” Delloye said. “It is not possible to have a tram in the city of San José without the help or the involvement of public bus drivers. It is impossible to do it another way.”

There are also other projects in the mix. A presentation given by Miguel Carabaguías Murillo promoted a regional electric, inter-urban train system with two lines, one on the north and one in the south, roughly 75 kilometers long total and connecting 13 different cantons from Cartago to Alajuela. Carabaguías said the project would mostly use existing infrastructure and coexist with traditional trains.

He is executive president of the Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles that runs the trains.

He said the downtown is paralyzed with traffic when all the people from the surrounding areas converge for work or commerce. He said this regional system could be integrated with other types of public transportation.

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