PANAMA CITY – Counting down his final weeks in office, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli on Saturday inaugurated the most-emblematic project of a five-year term marked by fast economic growth and more than a hint of hubris: Central America’s first subway system.
The metro will surely alleviate the booming capital’s dreadful traffic. But critics say the $2 billion spent on the 9-mile rail line would have been better used building a higher-capacity surface transport network and expanded bus system.
The critics also are unhappy about what they consider Saturday evening’s over-the-top party, with a free concert and fireworks, to celebrate the new subway. They called it a political stunt a month before Panama’s elections to drum up support for Martinelli’s preferred successor, former Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias.
Trains themselves won’t start running a full schedule until Monday.
Martinelli, who leaves office July 1, isn’t fazed by the criticism. The 62-year-old supermarket magnate has an approval rating of 60 percent and relishes the chance of getting his chosen successor elected, which no incumbent Panamanian president has done since democracy was restored in 1989.
Since Martinelli took office in 2009, Panama has spent upward of $15 billion on infrastructure improvements, including new hospitals, airports and 990 miles of highways. The subway is Panama’s second costliest project in the past century, surpassed only by the current $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal that began before he became president.