* Region still lags on infrastructure despite big plans
* Lack of planning, transparency seen as major barriers
* Private companies say they need a level playing field
By Stuart Grudgings
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 29 High-speed trains
bolting between Brazil's two biggest cities; a vast network of
highways connecting farmers and factories to ports; top-notch
airports where overcrowding is a thing of the past.
Welcome to the future of Latin America, a region that has
long lagged in providing its businesses and people with the
basic infrastructure that Western countries and much of East
Asia take for granted.
That's the dream, anyway. The reality is that while much of
the fast-growing region has the foundations and the funds for
infrastructure growth, poor implementation is holding it back.
Participants at the World Economic Forum on Latin America
in Rio de Janeiro said governments must think more radically to
tackle infrastructure bottlenecks, including reducing
bureaucratic barriers and improving coordination and
transparency to encourage private sector involvement.
"The bottleneck is not so much the funding as it used to
be; the bottleneck is the implementation capacity to design
projects, to execute them," said Mauricio Cardenas, director of
the Latin America initiative at the Brookings Institution.
"Our governments are showing they are tremendously weak in
terms of the ability to have a pipeline of projects ready."
Despite big infrastructure projects during the coming
years, many focused on the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016
Olympics in Brazil, Latin America underinvests in a sector that
is behind only education and health in improving people's
lives. The region invests about 2 percent of its gross domestic
product on infrastructure, compared to more than 4 percent in
Special Report on Brazil: link.reuters.com/xyd78r
Brazil's economic boom: r.reuters.com/tux38r
Among the region's most glaring infrastructure gaps are the
lack of a road connecting Colombia to its neighbor Panama and
routes between the energy-rich northeast of South America and
energy-poor Chile. Dire rail and road networks are a drag on
economic growth, jacking up export costs and food prices.
Norman Anderson, the president of U.S. consulting firm
CG/LA Infrastructure, said the region achieves infrastructure
projects worth $60-70 billion each year, whereas it should be
putting in place $200 billion worth.
Even Brazil, in many ways a regional leader in project
implementation, is struggling to meet its ambitious
infrastructure targets ahead of the major sports events.
Governments from the national to the local level must
coordinate better to ensure transparency and a level playing
field for private-sector partners, participants said.
Projects in the region are too often vulnerable to
politicians whose priority is to get reelected rather than
build for the long term. Maze-like bureaucracy means it often
takes longer to get approval for projects than to build them.
"Lack of coordination kills most of these projects. The
really bad thing is that it kills them after they have been
born so a lot of money has already been put in place," said
Renato Augusto Villela, finance secretary for the Brazilian
state of Rio de Janeiro.
Rio, which will host World Cup games and the Olympics, has
in recent years got its finances in order, improved security
and offered improved transparency to private contractors.
"The good news is that there is capital available," said
Henrique Meirelles, the former Brazil central bank chief who is
now head of Brazil's Olympic Public Authority coordinating
investments for the games.
"It's prepared to invest, number one where there is
predictability and, number two, where's there's growth and, a
very important thing, fair rules of the game."
Aside from Brazil, Peru and Colombia were cited as two
countries whose investor-friendly governments are improving the
prospects for infrastructure growth.
"When you put this together, it is really fascinating how
fast you can transform a country ... Colombia is going through
a major shift," said Felipe Jens, the investment director of
Brazilian infrastructure conglomerate Odebrecht.
"Once you give a minimum framework in terms of stability,
investors will deploy capital."
(Editing by Todd Benson and Robert MacMillan)