Municipal councilwoman Dora Ordóñez is asking who will run the railroad when it’s finally finished. She is one of three council members questioning the operational plan for Cuenca’s new tram system.
“All the emphasis has been on dealing with the construction delays and finding a new project management company, which is certainly understandable,” she says. “On the other hand, the mayor says the project will be complete by the end of the year and we have heard very little about the fare, how the tram will move through town, the safety rules, the signage, and interaction with vehicular traffic.”
Since October, when the Spanish project manager Cuatro Ríos Consortium of Cuenca (CCRC) walked off the job in a payment dispute with the city, Mayor Marcelo Cabrera and the city transportation staff have been focused on legal and construction logistical issues and are currently searching for a replacement for CCRC.
“We are only months away from going into operation and we haven’t even figured out how much the fare will be,” says Ordóñez. “We are also facing a major challenge of educating drivers about how to share the road with the train, which means installing and testing electronic signage with complicated computer controls. I understand we have to finish the construction but the other issues should be addressed simultaneously. Besides this, operations will require a large, well-trained staff, and I am hearing very little about the training.”
Former Mayor Paul Granda Cuenca, in office when construction of the tram began in 2012, predicted that the tram would transport 120,000 passengers a day and could operate with a fare of 25 cents, the same as city buses.
Cabrera and staff disagree with both estimates and say the 25-cent fare is not even sufficient to operate the bus system, much less the tram. He has ordered a study by consultants at the University of Cuenca to determine a new bus fare. “The fare is years out of date and is not enough to cover basic bus maintenance. It has to increase,” he says.
Ordóñez doesn’t disagree with adjusting bus fares but asks why the study didn’t include the tram fare as well, since the city still maintains that bus and the tram rides will cost the same. “Now is the time to figure this out,” she says. “Since they are talking about a unified fare, why didn’t we have a unified study?” she asks.
City transportation officials say determining tram expenses is complicated and requires more time. One official, who asked not to be named, said that once the recommendation for the new bus fare is received, the city will coordinate it with findings of tram expenses to determine a final fare for both systems. “It’s possible there will be two fares but the intention is still to have one,” he said.
Publicly, Guillermo Argudo, city director for the tram project, says studies of tram expenses and determination of the fare is almost complete. “This is taking more time than we anticipated. The country has no experience in operating municipal trams and nobody knows the costs of maintenance. We are having to figure this out from the bottom up.”
The tram is expected to operate with a staff of 110, 40 of them drivers. There will 40 technicians and 30 administrative personnel.
Responding to Ordóñez’s criticism, Argudo says that signage will not be installed until weeks before the system becomes operational and that a public information campaign will begin two months prior to full operation. “We don’t want to install signs too early since they will be exposed to vandalism,” he says. “I understand all the concerns that have been raised. We are aware of them and have a timetable to deal with them.”
According to Argudo, only three kilometers of track remain to be installed. It total, the tram route covers 22 kilometers, outbound and inbound.