Medellín: Flying high

Friday, February 6, 2009

The implementation of an integrated infrastructure development initiative in Colombian city Medellín's Santo Domingo Savio area helped change the city's image, and was a major step in the promotion of infrastructure development financed by public and private capitals.

BNamericas spoke with mayor Alonso Salazar to learn about Medellín's upcoming development and concession plans, many of which are expected to be addressed at the annual IDB forum, to be held in the city during the last week of March.

BNamericas: Medellín has become a popular city in the region, partly due to the success of its aerial cable systems. How has this experience been?

Salazar: Yes, I just saw that a Metrocable system in Rio de Janeiro was recently inaugurated and was inspired by the Medellín model. Although the press release only referred to the cable system, I imagine the city of Rio will do the same as we did, in terms of implementing an integrated development plan based on the mass transport system.

In the case of Medellín, which has two Metrocable systems already operating, we have had great success. We are now working on the construction of a third one. This will have a different purpose, as it was designed to transport citizens and tourists to 3,600ha of natural forest. This is part of a larger project: the Arbí ecological park. This initiative will become a new tourist attraction in the city and, together with Explora park, the Antioquia museum, the aquarium, the Northern park, among others, will consolidate us as a large tourist destination.

Medellín is developing tourism as an important business sector. Not only for business events, such as the textile fair ColombiaTex that just ended, but also for recreational tourism. People like our climate, our mountains and our people. And we are organizing ourselves so that this in itself becomes a future project.

BNamericas: We've heard about the construction of three new Metrocable systems. Are you moving forward with them?

Salazar: Yes. The studies are already being carried out to continue this type of project whose results have been so beneficial for our city.

BNamericas: Another initiative the city has been working on is the integrated mass transport system. How is that coming along?

Salazar: Our metro company Metro de Medellín is developing a strategic plan. As the city's mayor, I proposed a number of tasks to the company and the firm is complying with the schedule. [The project includes] the extension of a few networks, and maybe - just maybe - the implementation of a trolley system, or a model using metro and trolleys for steep areas, especially in Medellín's central-eastern area. In this area a metro extension was planned since the beginning of the project, along with a trolley system to travel along the Carrera 80 corridor in the city.

Finally, a new cable system would be implemented in the city's central-western area.

BNamericas: When will these projects become reality?

Salazar: By end-February or the beginning of March we will have the prefeasibility studies for all these projects and then we can start the implementation phase. These projects will be carried out much faster than normal because, once approved, Metro - which operates as a private company - is much faster in the tender process. So we expect to be launching tenders during the second half of this year.

BNamericas: The last time we met you spoke about road concessions in the areas surrounding the Medellín river. How are those projects coming along?

Salazar: I was actually in Chilean capital Santiago, where we found out as much as possible about the Costanera Norte highway concession, which runs parallel to the Mapocho river. In that sense, Santiago's geography is very much like Medellín's. One of the main similarities is that both cities are divided in half by rivers.

During that visit, we met with the public works minister, concessionaires, travelled along the Costanera Norte highway and visited their control room. As a mayor, I called on the region's investors to move forward with a road concession proposal parallel to the Medellín river, with characteristics similar to Santiago's.

BNamericas: What response did you get from the private sector?

Salazar: Firms have already submitted an amazing project, with an urban impact similar to Santiago's, which is extraordinary, including the creation of thousands of meters of public spaces and green areas.

BNamericas: What is the current status of this initiative?

Salazar: We are entering the technical and financial structuring phase, which should be ready in 3-4 months. We have looked into other concession models implemented in Spain's Barcelona and Madrid, and other cities. However, Santiago is the city most similar to us in terms of geography, and this proposal is moving forward.

BNamericas: Do you have an estimated date to launch a tender or is it too soon?

Salazar: The thing is, the project's technical and financial structuring phase will help us determine its feasibility in terms of private investment, and whether or not the public sector must also invest in the project. I must say, however, that we plan - and sometimes plans are nice dreams - to fulfill this goal. Therefore, if the project is feasible, we expect to launch the tender at the beginning of 2010.

BNamericas: The city has had landslides recently along the Vía Las Palmas road, which connects Medellín to the Río Negro international airport. Do you have any plans to improve the road between Medellín and the airport?

Salazar: That is really outside my area, because responsibility is beyond the municipality's. I will tell you what I know though. The government of Antioquia, which is the department we are in, has proposed the construction of a tunnel from Medellín - in the Aburrá valley - to the San Nicolás valley, which is where the airport is located and where a huge amount of urban development has taken place. That is why some refer to Medellín as a two-level city nowadays.

If the tunnel is built with the characteristics described by the governor, Luis Alfredo Ramos Botero, we would end up practically as one single city.

The four-lane Las Palmas highway has been an extraordinary development initiative that has begun to show difficulties, mainly due to construction problems, and also because of the winter season we have just had, which was the worst the city has ever experienced.