New Caracas subway runs into Venezuela's monetary crisis

Walking through the spacious station, one notices that the cushioned platforms are easy on the feet. ''I feel like I'm in another country,'' a rider remarks as the sleek subway cars approach. ''It could be London, Paris, Montreal.''

It's the multibillion-dollar Metro of Caracas, Venezuela, which began operating last January and just inaugurated a new spur last month. But the economic crisis that overwhelmed the country with the February decline in world oil prices has cast doubt over completion of construction plans.

To some Caraquenos, their Metro symbolizes Venezuelan membership in the exclusive club of the world's industrialized nations. Meanwhile, others consider it a reflection of the waste and inefficiency that have marked the last two federal administrations.

''Projects like this help explain why our foreign debt is $30 billion and we just indirectly devalued our currency by almost 50 percent,'' grumbled one Caracas businessman who foresees austere times ahead.

In the wake of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decision to lower oil prices, financial analysts project a $2 billion to $4 billion loss of income for Venezuela, which has already curtailed or terminated some development programs.

Since 1976 the Metro Corporation of Caracas has constructed 12 kilometers of subway track to carry about a half million people a day in 140 cars that stop at 14 stations, says Metro spokesman Anibal Marcano.

Throughout the project's existence, some private engineers have questioned the need for underground mass transit in a city like Caracas, which boasts a mild tropical climate - and they have criticized the Metro's limited extension through their long Andean valley.

''Our technical analysis determined that the Metro is the only solution that can truly help,'' Mr. Marcano said in regard to the legendary Caracas traffic jams, which rival the most convoluted New York City snarls.

''Convenient rapid transit will help combat stress,'' he added, in this city of 3 million, where almost half the commuters drive their own cars to work, clogging transport arteries from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

''A monorail had problems of complex design, crossing through the most congested downtown area and carrying less people,'' Mr. Marcano said of one of several alternative solutions raised in the transportation studies begun as early as 1947 by a United Nations mission.

Nevertheless, one non-Metro engineer countered, ''We could have done more to ease traffic with express bus lanes'' incorporated into the superhighways that crisscross the city. ''It would have cost less and covered a larger area in less time.''

For the most part, passengers seem hopeful that their stylish subway will ease the city's congestion. They maneuver through stations and enter the cars wide-eyed and tentative, many obviously enjoying their maiden voyage on the new system.

''We adopted our Metro to the topography and environment of Caracas,'' said the transit official, who recalled that the system was designed by a North American company in association with Venezuelan engineers and outfitted by a French firm, while a British concern installed its maintenance gear. ''Venezuelans like to have room to move, so the cars are wide, with four access doors, and are air-conditioned,'' he added.

''Now all of our 1,500 employees are Venezuelan, except for about 100 French, '' said Mr. Marcano, who estimated that the Metro Corporation has directly and indirectly employed about 6,000 people.

Last month, when the Ministry of Finance indirectly devalued the nation's currency, the Metro's 8.1 billion-bolivar ($1.9 billion) budget to construct two lines with 34 kilometers of track fell in foreign purchasing power to somewhat more than $1 billion.

Asked if this would impede progress of the construction plan, Mr. Marcano answered, ''We have financing that is approved by law, but we must study how exchange controls will affect us.''

Like most enterprises functioning in Venezuela, the Metro will probably apply for the preferential exchange rate being granted to essential economic activities. That would enable it to purchase dollars from the Central Bank at the old rate of 4.3 bolivares to the dollar, rather than the present rate of 7.6 bolivares to the dollar.

In the coming months of government cutbacks, the Metro's performance may be its best defense against critics who blame ''extravagant projects and the opportunities for corruption that they offer'' for causing ''the worst economic crisis we've ever experienced,'' which is the way one seasoned diplomat refers to the country's economic difficulties.

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