Country’s sagging infrastructure becomes a priority

by Garland M Baker on November 23, 2009

Narrow streets, massive amounts of potholes, century-old rotting bridges and two-hour long traffic jams for a trip that should take 10 minutes. Sounds like one dreaded Monday morning? Such is the reality of transportation in Costa Rica, which just last month reached a breaking point. The tragedy Oct. 22 when the bridge that communicated Orotina and Turrubares collapsed has opened perhaps the biggest can of worms: the long overdue and deliberate negligence towards investing and maintaining local infrastructure has become clear.

This country has two major problems: inadequate preparation for its seismic nature and deplorable road-bridge conditions. Both mix to form the perfect recipe for disaster. Sadly, it seems that Costa Rica only reacts after major tragedies claim precious lives. 23 people died in Cinchona Jan. 9, and five died in October in the Río Grande de Tarcoles. Both incidents have shed some light over the historic governmental negligence that has turned Costa Rica into a time bomb.

Roads in Costa Rica are still pretty much the same as 30 years ago. However, during that time, the population has doubled and so has the size and amount of cars. Obsolete rotondas or traffic circles are still used in San Jose although some are being replaced, and a minor traffic accidents can cause jams of up to five hours. For a nation that strives to become part of the developed group of countries, Costa Rica has to address governmental institutions plagued with problems and delays.

If Costa Rican governments understood that the country would do well to invest primarily in good road infrastructure, natural disaster planning and education, decisions would be easier to make. Improving education will produce better citizens and reduce crime. Decent roads and bridges will reduce the amount of accidents and natural disaster casualties, and good emergency planning and prevention will reduce the loss of life and money.

Costa Rica has three main voices: one from the experts, who make sure they warn everybody about the importance of listening to their recommendations; another from the government, which many times contradicts experts, promises to follow through or excuses itself for not acting; and the third one from the media, which reports both sides. However, for decades, this country has lived on printed and broadcasted words, not actions, and now the voices of the communities are only heard when there are victims to mourn.

According to several government accounts, the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes has been one of the entities with the most inadequate public budget and the highest level of bureaucracy. Infrastructure has been paralyzed for up to four decades, and due to this year’s tragedies, the current administration is being blamed for what dozens of prior presidents failed to implement. However, this government — despite its mistakes and criticism — is doing what many avoided: it has changed the course of action, taking into its own hands projects that have been paralyzed for months, years or decades, such as the completion of the Juan Santamaría airport (paralyzed 17 months), the highway San Jose-Caldera (paralyzed 30 years), and the Costanera Sur (paralyzed 47 years). It has also rewritten the transportation law, among other projects to improve road conditions, including rationing of downtown traffic.

Even though the ministry has 50 years worth of projects to complete, this administration took the first step, and hopefully future presidents see it as a milestone to guide their own path. One problem, of course, is that the country is broke. The San José-Caldera highway project and the Juan Santamaría airport improvements are being paid for by concession contracts. So will extensive improvements of the port of Limón if the government gets its way. The concession holders bring outside money to the country in hopes of making a profit. The average Costa Rican will end up paying more.

Among the most recent successes is the Costanera Sur where the last stretch of asphalt is being put down between Quepos and Dominical. And reports from the Caribbean say that the main highway in the vicinity of Puerto Viejo has been patched. But municipalities are in the same financial boat, and some of the worst roads are the responsibilities of municipal government, who are not getting enough funds from the central government.

The bridge crisis is much more complex than the road situation. Most rural bridges were built during the first half of the last century, many were made primarily of wood, and since they are not major routes of transportation, they have been neglected. Understandably, having such a load of pending issues, the government has been taking care of priority cases, but the latest tragedy evidenced how rural communities are often forgotten, and what is worse, some of those towns are the most visited by tourists. On top of age and materials, the latest study made by the Laboratorio Nacional de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales determined that most bridges in the valley are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, and that they will issue a separate seismic code for bridges in 2010.

These problems directly affect the expat community, personally and financially, especially to those who invest in tourism and real estate. A country with deficient road infrastructure and collapsing bridges poses a significant risk for clients, service providers and investors, not to mention the financial set back it creates when visitors or potential residents decide Costa Rica is still not ready for real business.

Perhaps the next president should take a look next door and see how much revenue Panamá is collecting by investing wisely in optimizing the city’s landscape and usability. Costa Rica’s biggest competition in Latin America is Panamá, and its threat is growing. Realizing that soon this country will be known as the backyard of Panamá might just do the trick.

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