Social Movement Defends Public Transportation Initiative Against Supreme Court Overreach
On May 8th Magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the exclusive bus lanes reserved for use by the Integrated Urban Transportation Systems of San Salvador (SITRAMSS), the capitals innovative rapid bus transit project implemented in 2013 under the first Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) Administration. Social movement actors protested the decision calling for its reversal, as well as the removal of the four highly unpopular Magistrates involved in the decision. The injunction forms part of a series of politically charged Constitutional Chamber decisions that many social movement and left wing political actors have interpreted as attempts to undermine the current government’s social projects, block its finances, and stop the advancement of structural economic changes by any means necessary.
In 2013, the FMLN-Funes Presidency founded the modern SITRAMSS bus project through a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) and the SITRAMSS Business Union as a response to San Salvador’s precarious and dangerous private transportation system and heavy traffic congestion. But in 2015, Juan Pablo Álvarez, President of United Salvadoran Routes along with the Association of Salvadoran Bus drivers (AEAS), owners of the failed private bus transit system, presented a lawsuit calling on the Constitutional Chamber to shut down the SITRAMSS project. The private bus association, a part of the business oligarchy, has felt threatened by the SITRAMSS because it has raised safety, health and environmental standards of public transport; and because there has been an attempt on behalf of the government to reclaim infrastructure as a public good and implement measures for control and monitoring. Initially, the Court avoided making any final decisions on the case, but in May they called on the Presidency to produce information regarding the bidding process through which the SITRAMSS gained access to the public roads and terminals, an issue that was not originally contemplated in the plaintiffs lawsuit. This evidenced the Magistrates serious conflict of interests and upon realizing this, the presidency requested that the judges recuse themselves from the case, but before complying they issued a last minute injunction.
The temporary ruling opened up the reserved lanes to other vehicles sending traffic into increased chaos and slowing down transit time for SITRAMSS users traveling out of the capital. The public works ministry and the Presidency responded by allocating traffic police at various SITRAMSS entrances around the city and in areas where the lanes are still under construction in order to guarantee the functioning of the project.
Meanwhile, progressive civil society organizations are calling for acts of civil disobedience and have even called on the Legislature to create a special commission to investigate and oust the Magistrates from the Chamber, that according to them, “is a right awarded to the Assembly under the Constitution.” Leonel Herrera, member of Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU) stated, “… there is no longer judicial logic, there is no criteria for constitutional control, its actually arbitrary, an abuse of the magistrate function...” ASGOJU recently presented a lawsuit against the four Constitutional Chamber Magistrates in the Governmental Ethics Tribunal, an independent government agency responsible for holding public officials accountable, arguing that the injunction was not guided by valid constitutional arguments, “…there is a transportation system that is modern, secure and efficient, that is of public interest, while private interest is that of the businessmen who appeal to the Chamber to boycott the SITRAMSS” stated Herrera in a media interview outside of the ethics tribunal.
While the project is still in its first phase of completion, it has already benefited over 521,000 people, the majority of which have been women, elderly and disabled persons, as well as marginalized youth whose mobility has been seriously limited by the security crisis and traffic congestion in the greater San Salvador. On May 15th members of National Council for Attention to Disabled Persons (CONAIPD) demonstrated and pronounced themselves in defense of the SITRAMSS. If the ruling remains in place over 430,000 people, representing 80% of the population using collective bus transport will be negatively impacted.
The decision demonstrates that the Constitutional Chamber Magistrates prioritize big business interest over the public good; roads and walkways in the city already prioritize the mobility of vehicles rather than securing pedestrian access to safe and secure mobility. The SITRAMSS Business Union has also threatened to withdraw the project from country if the issue is not resolved, and further loans to expand the project will likely be in jeopardy. This highlights one of the many problems with public-private partnerships, as the bottom line is the profitability rather than the public good of having an affordable, secure public transportation infrastructure. Similar public transportations systems with exclusive roads have proved successful in neighboring countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and in South America, Brazil, Columbia, and Ecuador.