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Minister challenges regional leaders to explain why they won't drop fares

Madrid and Barcelona say reducing Metro prices will cost more than savings

A day after the regional governments in Madrid and Catalonia announced they would not be participating in the central government's energy-saving proposals, Public Works Minister José Blanco on Wednesday demanded that local officials explain to their citizens why they refuse to chip in.

The Cabinet announced last week the government would reduce the maximum speed limits on highways from 120km/h to 110km/h and drop commuter train fares by five percent on Renfe's short routes. The measures are geared to offset the costs of soaring oil prices fueled by the unrest in Libya.

Blanco had asked officials in Spain's two biggest cities to introduce similar price reductions in their city-run public-transportation systems.

In Madrid, the Popular Party administration of regional premier Esperanza Aguirre said if local officials were to reduce Metro and bus fares by five percent, it would cost the government 45 million euros just to implement the measure. In Barcelona, Francesc Homs, spokesman for the new government of Arturo Mas, estimated that it would cost Catalonia 23 million euros.

"If Catalonia and Madrid don't want to participate in this decision, they should explain to their citizens why they refuse to drop passenger fares," said a combative Blanco. The minister said the reductions were "the best way" to encourage more people to use public transportation and leave their vehicles at home.

Officials in cash-strapped Catalonia were especially perturbed by the central government's announcement because they hadn't been informed beforehand about the Cabinet's plans. "It is like they invite you to drink a cup of coffee with them, everyone drinks the coffee, and then they tell you to pay," said Homs. "We are not going to tolerate this."

A Madrid government spokesman said the reductions in Renfe fares would affect only a low number of commuters in the region, and added that leaders have ruled out applying the rider fare discounts for Metro and bus passengers.

In an energy-saving plan, Industry Ministry officials proposed changing light bulbs in all Spanish cities to energy saving models, including the compact fluorescent type. Industry Minister Miguel Sebastián met with Pedro Castro, the president of the Socialist-backed Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FEMP) on Tuesday to discuss the proposal. Studies show that the plan could save as much as 42 percent in energy costs, Castro said. Nevertheless, the price tag for unscrewing and replacing all the bulbs in the country was not immediately known.

Castro said that the central government would pay for the entire switch through the ministry's so-called Plan E.

In another development, Blanco, who was in Galicia, announced that despite what some political sources have said, the government has not canceled its plans to extend the AVE high-speed train network to the region.