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Andalusia’s “streetcar to nowhere”

Political squabbling is sealing the sad fate of Jaén’s ambitious tramway

Technicians inspect one of Jaén’s trams during a testing period in June 2012. Ampliar foto
Technicians inspect one of Jaén’s trams during a testing period in June 2012.

The tramway was meant to be the project that would make a modern city out of Jaén, the Andalusian provincial capital. And indeed, the 4.7 kilometers of rails did revolutionize the urban layout. Jaén became a new city after four bridges were eliminated and replaced with a broad boulevard where cars would run parallel to the tracks alongside a large green area wedged between the sleepy city’s north and south ends.

But it was all a mirage. Two years have elapsed since Jaén’s tramway system — which was built in record time for a Spanish public works project — came to a halt before even being inaugurated. A transportation system that cost regional coffers 120 million euros continues to lie idle as citizens look on indifferently and elected officials engage in futile squabbles.

“Every day that goes by represents a waste of public money,” said Andalusian public works commissioner Elena Cortés during one of her latest visits to Jaén, where she did not conceal her government’s embarrassment at seeing the five tramway cars and civil engineering work languishing for lack of political consensus. Here is the rub: the tramway was a project of the previous Socialist government, but by the time it was completed, the conservative Popular Party (PP) had come to power in the city. And the new mayor, José Enrique Fernández de Moya, never believed in the project. As a matter of fact, he has remained true to the statement he made during his campaign: “I will never ride in the tram.” He also called it “a streetcar to nowhere.”

And so the “streetcar to nowhere” is a prime example of how there are two very different ideas about the ideal new Jaén. The PP government absolutely rejects the tramway (“it’s a 19th-century means of transportation”) and claims it cannot afford the estimated five million euros a year it would cost to keep it running. The Catalan FGC train agency initially showed an interest in developing the project, but soon walked away. Now, the city will issue a new invitation to tender, although the mayor has warned that if entrepreneurial interest remains lukewarm, he will “hand over the tramway keys to the Andalusian premier” — who just happens to be a Socialist, José Antonio Griñán.

So the question now is what to do with a major piece of infrastructure that is deteriorating with every passing day from lack of maintenance. While officials dither, many locals are using the space as an improvised parking lot, especially in the mornings and afternoons when parents drop off or pick up their kids at school, while the local police looks permissively on.

“It’s madness to leave such an investment lying idle; city and regional officials have to sit down and find a solution,” says María Cantos, president of the Jaén federation of neighborhood associations. Cantos bemoans the fact that the various public agencies “are not on the same wavelength” on this issue. An audit commissioned by the PP mayor revealed that the tramway’s annual operating costs are estimated at 3.3 million euros, to which a further 1.7 million must be tacked on for a period of 17 years to cover the amortization of the five cars that the city must pay to the Andalusian government.

Considering that around 1.3 million trips were expected to be made on the tramway a year, at the price of one euro per ride, revenues would be too small to make the service sustainable. “If we don’t have the money to pay employees’ wages, where are we going to find five million a year for the tramway?” wonders Fernández de Moya. Jaén has per capita debt of 2,553 euros, the highest after Ceuta, the Spanish exclave on the northern coast of Africa.

But the opposition notes that all public services run at a loss by definition, like garbage removal, which costs 10 million euros a year, and the municipal television station, which sets city coffers back 3.5 million euros. The city also subsidizes the local bus service, and just last month it had to pay out 450,000 euros to avoid the umpteenth workers’ strike. Given this situation, the mayor would like to find a company to operate the tramway, on condition that it will require no public subsidies whatsoever.

“That’s impossible, since we would no longer be talking about a public collective transportation system at affordable prices for all citizens regardless of their income levels,” replies the regional public works delegate, Juan Antonio Sáez. Fernández de Moya also says that the Andalusian government should help pay for the service. “What the mayor needs to do is get the tramway up and running,” retorts Elena Cortés, offering help on the technical front but not financial aid.

But Jaén is not the only Andalusian city with a useless tramway on its hands. Down south, the coastal town of Vélez-Málaga was the first to inaugurate such a service in the region. Beginning in October 2006, 3.5 kilometers of tracks linked this municipality with the popular beach resort of Torre del Mar. Then, in June of last year, the city decided to halt the service because of mounting debt. The three cars have been sitting motionless for a year.

Aware that the tramway represented an expense even when it was not operational, PP Mayor Francisco Delgado recently decided to rent out the cars to the Australian city of Sydney, where they are scheduled to arrive a few weeks from now. The lease is for two years, with a clause that allows Vélez-Málaga to reclaim them at any time with a 30-day notice. The city will make 200,000 euros a year on the lease, and save another 100,000 in maintenance costs.

Again, the 40 million-euro project was begun by a Socialist mayor, Antonio Souviron, and shot down by a PP government when local elections came around. Even before winning, the future mayor was already talking about the “ruinous” service and forecasting the same end for it as the Jaén tramway. And so it was.