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A Subway: Just What’s Needed. Or Is It?


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A Subway: Just What’s Needed. Or Is It?


September 3, 2007



Construction crews rushing to finish a subway system for Santo Domingo,

the Dominican capital. All photos by Barbara P. Fernandez


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Sept. 1 — Dominicans are singing about their subway. They are arguing about it. No trains are in place yet, not to mention rails or turnstiles, and the Santo Domingo Metro has become as hot a topic of conversation as the fate of Dominicans’ favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees.


As of now, the subway is a hole in the ground, a mountain of concrete, a stretch of tunnels where workers are racing to meet President Leonel Fernández’s construction deadline of early next year, in time for the presidential election in May in which he hopes to win a new term. Meanwhile, the debate about the merits of the project — from song lyrics to heated conversations over bottles of Presidente beer — is as intense as the flurry of subterranean shoveling and welding and hammering.



Santo Domingo’s subway will have

nine miles of tracks.

[/float]Only the second underground rail system in the Caribbean — the first is in San Juan, Puerto Rico — Santo Domingo’s subway project is, to some, a colossal exercise in bad judgment, a white elephant on rails. To others, though, it is a forward-thinking solution to the capital’s serious traffic congestion.


Santo Domingo, whose population is two million and growing, is bursting at the seams. Its roadways are clogged with buses, private cars, bicycles and rundown taxis, where passengers sit cheek-by-jowl with strangers. Add the occasional horse cart for a snarling, slow-moving mess.


“I spend most of my life in jams,” grumbled Santo Castillo, 27, who was behind the steering wheel of a taxi the other day, breathing fumes and watching pedestrians pass him by. “With this subway, we’re going to be world-class. We’re poor, but we’ll have a Metro, just like New York.”


Even without a subway, there are strong links between Santo Domingo and New York, home to an estimated 550,000 Dominicans, who prop up the country’s economy with the $1 billion they send home annually. Mr. Fernández, in fact, spent his youth in Manhattan, often riding the trains. Now he sees a Dominican subway as a way of modernizing the country and taming its traffic woes.


He also considers it, aides say, part of his campaign to keep more of his countrymen from emigrating, although 57 percent of Dominicans surveyed in a recent poll said they wanted to leave.



The streets are clogged with cars,

trucks, buses and even horse carts.[/float]“Leonel spent an important part of his life in New York, and he understands the benefits of a Metro,” said Leonel Carrasco, assistant director of the subway project, speaking of the president.


The initial $470 million estimate of the cost of the project has spiraled to nearly $700 million. Some suspect that will end up costing far more. In a country with deeply rooted poverty, infuriating power failures and social indicators a notch below those of Sri Lanka, opponents say there are better things the country could have done with the money.


“Is it more of a priority than education or health care or fighting poverty?” said Hamlet Hermann, a former minister of transportation in Mr. Fernández’s government and now a vehement critic of the project. “That’s what I ask.”


The project, announced in 2004, calls for nine miles of tracks and 16 stops, 10 of them underground. It will run from the northern part of the city, across the Isabela River, to the downtown, near the coast. More lines are planned for the years ahead.


Already, though, the subway is coming up in songs. Some of those who debate it by day grab a partner and dance to it at night.


“Metro, Metro, Metro, Metro, Metro, Metro,” Julián Oro Duro says over and over to a lightning-quick merengue beat in his risqué take on a project he calls “Leonel’s obsession.”


In another hit, La Krema, a rap group, lists the country’s many woes as a backup singer chimes in sarcastically, “Now we have a Metro.”


The subway is not the first project to draw criticism here. Some are already comparing it to the giant 10-story cross built in 1992 to honor Columbus.


That construction drew street protests as Dominicans, in economic crisis at the time, denounced a price tag of about $100 million. When a wall went up around the monument, it was called the “wall of shame” by local residents, who regarded it as an attempt by the government to hide the dire living conditions of the surrounding neighborhoods from visitors.


The government turns on the monument’s giant strobe lights, which project a giant cross in the sky, only on special occasions, because neighborhood people resent such an extravagance when their lights are frequently out.


Still, the strong local opposition to the Columbus monument has waned, and officials expect the same to happen with the Metro.


“Nobody wanted the Eiffel Tower, and now it’s the symbol of Paris,” said Andy Mieses, director of the monument and a backer of the subway. “Today we protest and tomorrow we celebrate. That’s the way it is.”


An elaborate ceremony that Mr. Fernández staged at the National Palace the other day had nothing to do with the subway. The subject was the inauguration of a health insurance plan.


But the subway is a subtext to most everything these days.


Msgr. Agripino Núñez Collado, a religious leader active in civic affairs who spoke at the event, apologized to the hundreds of assembled guests for arriving an hour late. He said he was stuck in traffic so bad that the vice president had to send motorcycle officers to extract him and race him to the palace. What better endorsement for a subway project than that?


But as the religious leader spoke, the palace lights briefly went off, a reminder of the power cuts that are a regular part of life in Santo Domingo. How can a country that cannot keep its lights on possibly keep the trains running on time, critics ask.


In fact, the engineers have an answer to that question. The project includes an independent generating station to ensure that time saved by avoiding traffic jams above ground is not wasted sitting around in the dark down below.

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