Gridlocked Indonesian capital prays for metro

Ajeng Dewanti wakes up every weekday before sunrise, squeezes into an overcrowded car, and spends the next two hours making the 17-kilometre (11-mile) journey through the Jakarta gridlock to her work.

The tortuous slog in slow moving cars and on motorbikes in the oppressively hot, smog-choked Indonesian capital is common for commuters, many of whom long ago abandoned an inadequate network of crowded buses and trains.

"I spend a good deal of my life on the road," said Dewanti, a 30-year-old Indonesian who travels with other commuters in a private car that has been converted into a makeshift taxi to reach her work.

But now hopes are high the perennial traffic chaos could be eased after one of Asia's last major cities without a metro set out clear plans to build one, after more than two decades of discussing the idea.

Officials on Thursday revealed the two consortia of Japanese and Indonesian firms who will build the first section of the network, a key step before construction begins later this year.

Shimizu-Obayashi-Jaya Konstruksi and Sumitomo-Mitsui-Hutama Karya are to build an underground section running from an affluent southern suburb to the landmark Hotel Indonesia roundabout in the heart of the city.

The six-kilometre (3.7-mile) stretch is part of one line, which Jakarta's new Governor Joko Widodo says will be completed in 2017, decades after other cities such as Singapore and Manila inaugurated their metros.

The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system will eventually stretch over 110 kilometres (70 miles) in the city, whose metropolitan area has a population of 27 million, and will have both overground and underground sections.

But Jakarta still faces a lengthy wait as officials don't expect the whole system to be finished until the mid-2020s.

The metro was first mooted more than 20 years ago but in a graft-ridden country with a notoriously inept bureaucracy, the central and city governments only managed to agree this year on how to share the funding for the project.

Pressure had been mounting for officials to finally move the project forward following repeated warnings about the damage the traffic chaos was doing to Southeast Asia's top economy, of which Jakarta is the beating heart.

The chronic jams cause losses of 17.2 trillion rupiah ($1.8 billion) a year, according to official figures that take into account working hours lost, fuel wasted and health care costs for illnesses caused by noxious exhaust fumes.

And the situation has only worsened as Indonesia's economy booms, clocking up annual growth of more than 6.0 percent in recent years, and hundreds of new cars and motorbikes flood onto the ageing road network every day.

While the decisive steps on the MRT have raised hopes it may actually happen this time, there are nevertheless doubts in a city where such grand projects have a history of unravelling in a storm of mismanagement.

A row of concrete columns with rusty metal protruding from the top in south Jakarta are all that was ever built of a monorail, halted soon after construction started in 2004 as funding dried up.

Widodo also wants to revive that project, although it is much smaller than the metro and observers say it would not have a huge impact on traffic congestion.

Experts also caution the metro will not solve all the city's traffic woes, and that more public transport as well as measures to get cars off the roads, such as tolls, are needed.

But Dewanti, like many other hard-pressed commuters, has high hopes that the metro will ease her daily battle to get to her work at an advertising agency in the city centre.

While none of the lines would serve the eastern suburb where she lives, she is confident the system would reduce traffic jams considerably.

"If the MRT goes some way to easing the traffic, my life will improve," she said. "I won't arrive at the office in a bad mood anymore, with bad hair and smelly clothes."

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