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Cuenca’s new light rail system, Tranvía de los Cuatro Rios, is scheduled to be operational in 2014

Tranvía de los Cuatro Rios is about to leave the station and, according to city planners, it will transform public transportation in Cuenca.

Scheduled to begin construction by the end of the year, the tranvía, or tram, will be the largest infrastructure project in Cuenca history, the $230 million cost being shared by local and federal governments, supplemented by grants and loans from China, Spain and France.

According to project coordinator Juan Zea, the tram is necessary to relieve pressure on overtaxed city streets and highways and to move commuters more efficiently. “More than 70% of Cuenca’s population depends on public transportation and the current system of buses has not kept up with the demand,” he says. “We have almost 500 buses on the streets and they are not only slow but are our biggest source of pollution.”

The new electric tram will run from Pan Americana Sur at the intersection with Av. Las Americas on the southwest side of town, to Av. Ordóñez Lasso, through El Centro, by the main bus station and airport on Av. España, to Parque Industrial in the northeast. Lines in the historic district will run on Calles Gran Colombia, Mariscal La Mar and Gaspar Sangurima. The round-trip will cover 21.4 kilometers. According to planners, the project is scheduled to be completed in late 2014.

Zea says his staff is already studying future expansion, including a north-south extension to the Social Security hospital on the Azoguez autopista, and a westward extension on Av. Ordóñez Lasso. “We are years away from these, of course” he says. “Once we are operational with the first routes we will concentrate on new ones.”

The European-designed light rail system, will have its biggest impact on Cuenca’s historic center. Zea and Daniel Astudillo, director of the historic district council, say the tram will reduce the number of buses in the district by 20% to 25% and allow planning for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. “Everyone knows that we have a serious traffic problem in the historic center. There are simply too many vehicles for the streets to handle, and too much pollution. The tranvía is the most important step in solving the problem,” says Astudillo.

With the addition of the tram and construction of a series of large parking garages on the outskirts on the historic district, the city hopes to close a number of historic district streets to traffic, converting them to pedestrian malls. “Our objective is to preserve our architectural heritage, and to make El Centro a more attractive place to live and visit,” says Austudillo, who notes that UNESCO, the United Nations cultural and educational office, has endorsed the tram. UNESCO designated Cuenca’s historic district a World Heritage Site in 1999.

There is no disputing the fact that Cuatro Rios will have a transforming effect on transportation in the city. The system will carry 120,000 passengers a day at three times the speed of buses and taxis. Cuenca mayor Paul Granda, who has championed the system since he took office four years ago, says the speed of the tram will be the most obvious advantage for most commuters. “Imagine catching the train at the Ordóñez Lasso station and being at the airport in seven minutes?” he asked.

The design of the system is based on the recommendation of French consulting firm Coteba Artelia, which considered Cuenca’s population density, historic character, narrow streets and large commuter population. “A narrow gauge electric tram is the best solution for Cuenca,” Coteba Artelia reported.

Paul Espinoza, a retired transportation engineer who spent most of his working life in Canada, agrees and says that Cuenca is very much like a European city. “Not only do you have the high population density in the center, but the newer neighborhoods outside of the center are also compact. For the same reason the city is not good for cars, it is very good for light rail, which is the case with most European cities.”

Espinoza says Cuenca’s tram will be similar to systems in such European cities as Barcelona, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Strasbourg. “Some of my North American friends ask why Cuenca doesn’t build more roads to accommodate more cars and I tell them that it is not possible because of the design of the city, and that we should look to Europe for solutions. If you consider the results of road-building policies in the U.S., you see why we should follow another model.”

The Cuatro Rios system will have 14 units of five cars each, each capable of carrying 300 passengers. The system’s 27 stations will be spaced at distances of about 800 meters outside the historic district and 400 meters within the district. On average, trains will stop at stations every six minutes and travel at speeds of 22 kilometers and hour, compared to 7 to 8 kilometeres per hour speed for buses. Fares will be the same as for buses, currently 25 cents.

Zea, Astudillo and other planners are working on new bus routes that will augment the tram. “We will change routes, especially in El Centro, so they serve as a feeder system to the tranvía,” says Zea. “For transportation purposes, efficiency is our primary goal.”

For more information about Tranvía Cuatro Rios, see the 8½-minute YouTube video about the system at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9I_6n-CyOsA&feature=related.

Photo captions: An artist's version of how the Tranvía will look traveling on Calle Gran Colombia and Av. España in Cuenca.