SAO PAULO, March 5 (Reuters) - The public transport projects designed to modernise Brazilian cities for the 2014 soccer World Cup are being scaled back, delayed or cancelled as legal challenges, corruption and a lack of planning threaten to rob locals of the tournament's most lasting legacy.
The 12 host cities, keen to use the event to overhaul aging urban infrastructure, laid out ambitious plans to build new metro lines, monorails and dedicated bus lanes but, with 15 months to go before the games kick off, it seems unlikely that all the projects will come to fruition.
"The much-discussed social legacy looks like it won't get off the drawing board," Romario, a former World Cup winner who is now a lawmaker in Brazil's Congress, wrote last month in a newspaper column. "Almost all the transport projects are behind schedule, some have been put back and will be opened only after the World Cup and others have been cancelled altogether."
Although exact numbers are still changing, at least a dozen of the 49 original projects have changed completely.
Five cities - Brasilia, Fortaleza, Manaus, Salvador and Sao Paulo - would not have the promised tram lines, express lanes for buses or metro links ready for the opening match on June 12, said Valmir Campelo, an official with the Federal Audits Court who monitors World Cup planning.
Time was "extremely tight" on others, Campelo added. So many of the projects would not be ready that authorities in several cities were discussing closing schools and declaring public holidays on match days to avoid traffic jams.
"This definitely won't leave the legacy it could or should have," Campelo told Reuters.
World Cup organisers play down the setbacks and say the host cities are still being transformed. Ronaldo, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid striker who is a leading member of the local organising committee, said work was currently being done that might otherwise have taken years.
Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo argues that other big sporting events, such as the 2012 and 2008 Olympics, had similar teething problems.
"Problems with transportation occurred in London, as well as in Beijing, but Brazil is seeking to undertake efforts so that all the host cities are the most comfortable possible in terms of transit and traffic and, more important, much more comfortable than today," Rebelo said in a January conference call with reporters.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the situation is not as rosy as it was supposed to be. While Brazil is now the world's seventh-biggest economy, it is still a developing nation that badly needs to add and modernise roads, airports, public transport links and other vital infrastructure.
Sao Paulo, South America's largest city and Brazil's business capital, which will host the World Cup's prestigious opening match, has no rail links to either of its two airports, leaving travellers to face notorious gridlock.
Authorities have long fallen short on promises to build a rail link to the international airport on the city's outskirts and now acknowledge that the proposed monorail that would link the domestic airport to the metro will not be ready in time.
The situation is similar in the capital Brasilia, where work started on 18 km of tram lanes from the airport to the city but was halted in 2011 when a judge ruled the construction companies were involved in overpricing and other irregularities.
In the jungle city of Manaus, authorities cancelled two major projects to build 20 km of monorail and 21.5 km of bus lanes. In Fortaleza, where six World Cup matches will take place, work has not begun on seven km of planned highways, tunnels and overpasses.
In Salvador, a city of three million people with no working metro, none of the roads or rail or metro links under construction will be ready for the tournament.
Experts point to common factors behind the delays. Either judicial investigators halted construction because of financial irregularities or initial feasibility studies and subsequent planning were so poor that funding was not approved.
Relocating families in the way of roads and rail lines has been a constant source of conflict and court cases, and Brazil's strict environmental laws have also prompted legal injunctions.
Another factor is that things just seem to take a long time in Brazil, a country known for maddening bureaucracy and a laid-back approach to life.
"We won the right to host the World Cup in October 2007 but we didn't decide what needed to be done until January 2010," said Jose Roberto Bernasconi, who heads a trade association of local engineering and construction firms. "In 2008 and 2009 we did little or nothing. You can call it lack of money, or will, or competence but there was definitely a lack of something."
Still, not everyone is discouraged. The public response to the delays and cancellations has been muted, perhaps because few governments have admitted they will not be doing all they promised.
Bernasconi said Brazil's lack of decent public transport was so obvious that authorities could not avoid taking action, even if it was slow. So work would get done, he predicted, just not all of it in time for the World Cup.
Even critics acknowledge the setbacks have contributed to widening the debate.
"Before Brazil was confirmed as host of the World Cup, no one or hardly anyone spoke about urban transport projects," said Campelo of the federal Audits Court. "Now the term is widely used. People know what it means and talk about it. In that sense, Brazil has taken advantage of the opportunity." (Editing by Todd Benson and Clare Fallon)