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Rapid Rails for Uruguay
Américas / September-October 1997

By Larry Luxner

Uruguay's state-run Administración de Ferrocarriles del Estado (AFE) will soon call for "expressions of interest" from bidders hoping to construct a $230 million privately financed suburban railway system.

The 27-kilometer-long railway will extend from Montevideo east to El Pinar and other cities along the Atlantic coast, according to AFE President Victor Vaillant. He calls the current transportation situation "grave" in light of rapid suburban population growth in the area.

"The highways aren't sufficient to move all these people," Vaillant said in a recent interview in Washington. "It now costs $2 and takes an hour and 40 minutes to get from El Pinar to Montevideo by colectivo (public bus)."

With AFE's proposed "Tren de la Costa," travel time would be slashed to 40 minutes, with tickets costing $2 or even less. As now envisioned, the train would glide along tracks built along the center dividing line of an existing four-lane highway, though in parts of Montevideo the tracks would be elevated. A study financed by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency by Mercer Management Consulting found the project was "technically and economically viable" assuming ridership of 74,600 passengers per day. An earlier study by Spanish consulting firm AFISE yielded similar results.

The $230 million price tag includes signaling, 11 stations, mobile equipment, maintenance, design and engineering. Vaillant said AFE would evaluate expressions of interest over the next six months. Bids will likely be called in 1998, with construction beginning by 2000.

Recently, the Inter-American Development Bank's Multilateral Investment Fund awarded Uruguay a $1 million grant to help lure more private investment in public works infrastructure. Through the MIF, international experts will travel to Uruguay to advise officials how to award and operate concessions, while Uruguayan officials will visit other countries in order to analyze and possibly apply successful experiences to their own situation.

In a somewhat related -- but vastly more complicated and expensive -- project, at least nine international consortia have shown interest in building a $1 billion bridge that'll connect Buenos Aires with the Uruguayan town of Colonia as early as 2003. The Montevideo-based binational commission in charge of the massive undertaking says the consortia involve 17 construction firms, including Brazil's Odebrecht, Japan's Mitsubishi, Argentina's Techint, Great Britain's Trafalgar House, Italy's Impregilo and San Francisco-based Bechtel.

Nikhil Bhandari, a transportation planner with Washington-based Louis Berger International, says a tender for the 35-year concession could be issued by November, with actual construction beginning by June 1998. The bridge's Argentine terminus will be at Punta Lara, 50 kilometers south of Buenos Aires. It'll make landfall in Uruguay, just east of Colonia. Upon completion in 2003, the 42-kilometer-long bridge -- the longest of its kind the world -- will carry an estimated 5,500 vehicles a day, based on a projected toll of $60-80. That should dramatically cut transport time for truckers carrying goods between South America's two largest cities, Buenos Aires and São Paulo.

President Julio Maria Sanguinetti calls the bridge "a fundamental link within a broader concept of the integration process" between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- the four original members of Mercosur.

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