(above) Credit: DAVID MERCADO


Bolivia is tripling the size of its subway in the sky


By Sarah Marsh, Reuters

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia already has the largest urban cable car system in the world. Now the booming country is tripling the size of the network and will soon have nine lines whizzing above the administrative capital of La Paz.

The Andean city of 1.8 million has long struggled with chaotic transport. Minibuses and taxis with handwritten signs in their windscreens pick up passengers randomly along winding, congested routes.

But in the last two years, aided by growing state revenues from natural gas and mining, President Evo Morales' leftist government has built a cable car system it sees as the cornerstone of a modern transport network: a subway in the sky.

State company "Mi Teleferico" ("My Cable Car") now operates three lines, including two linking La Paz with the satellite city of El Alto. It has started work on new routes that will take the network from 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to 30 kilometers.

"The first phase was focused on uniting two cities. The second is on creating a network," Cesar Dockweiler, Mi Teleferico's manager, said in an interview.

The silent, electrically powered cable cars with built-in wifi and panoramic views of the Andes might make transport systems in other metropolises look outdated. Though cities such as Colombia's Medellin also boast cable car lines, none are as extensive.

Mi Teleferico says the network will be able to handle 27,000 passengers an hour when finished, but will not be held to a completion date. Observers say most of it should be done in a year.

The government opted for cable cars as the cheapest way to reduce road traffic and cut commuting hours. Subterranean rivers and steep slopes make an underground system much more expensive.

"There are no traffic jams," said Ivan Rodriguez, a 31-year-old doctor, whose 90-minute commute has been halved. "Minibuses are uncomfortable and the drivers treat you badly."

The first three lines cost $234 million. The next six lines are projected to cost $450 million.

Dockweiler says the system, built by Austrian firm Doppelmayr, is a relatively cheap fix. Just one kilometer of underground typically costs more than $100 million.

"The cable car came out much cheaper than a metro. It pays for its own maintenance through ticket fees," Dockweiler said. Tickets cost just 3 Bolivianos (43 cents).

Still, the project has its detractors. Some complain that commuters can peer from the cable cars into the homes and gardens below. Locals joke curtain sales have gone up.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Peter Galloway)