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Two Steps Back in Airport Dispute

August 26, 2005

IT has been nearly three months sincegovernment officials announced with glee that they had reached an agreement in the dispute that has stalled renovation of the country’s principal airport for more than two years; yet this week, representatives of both disputing parties say the search for financial equilibrium to the controversial contract is not over.Despite June’s triumphant announcement, Minister of Public Works and Transport Randall Quirós said Wednesday that negotiations have been reopened with Alterra Partners, which holds the contract to operate and renovate Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela, northwest of San José. Alterra executive director Mónica Nágel confirmed the same to the daily La Nación.Earlier this month, the contract addendum, as the settlement has become known, was poised to go before the Technical Council of the Civil Aviation Authority (CETAC) for review and approval. CETAC as well as the Comptroller General must approve the addendum before it can take effect and the more than $100 million airport renovation can resume.THIS approval process was halted when four members of CETAC, including Transport Vice-Minister and council president Roberto Arguedas, resigned. While the official story is that all four resigned for personal reasons, reports have surfaced in the press that pressure from Quirós to approve the addendum instigated the resignations.Quirós denies he pressured any CETAC members, although he admits he has always encouraged the addendum’s rapid approval because the airport badly needs the renovations, which have been stalled since 2003.Legislators have summoned Quirós and Nágel to testify before the assembly to shed some light on the latest negotiations, which National Liberation Party legislator Luis Ramírez called “dubious and secret.”Essentially, the addendum lays out a formula to bring financial equilibrium to Alterra’s contract.Quirós said he has no qualms about talking to legislators, but that contract negotiations are the legal responsibility of the Executive Branch, not the assembly.The Minister plans to replace the CETAC members as soon as possible so the approval process can continue, he said.Meanwhile, the ministry and Alterra continue to work out details and problems that have arisen in recent weeks.Quirós said once the addendum is approved by CETAC, which can make further modifications, he will make it public; at that point anyone, including legislators, can make their comments to the Comptroller General’s Office during the 45-business-day approval process there.The dispute stems from a scathing report issued in March 2003 that raised questions about many of the fees Alterra could charge airport users (TT, March 28, 2003).Alterra officials said the contract’s financial equilibrium was in jeopardy if the company was not allowed to charge the fees they said were previously agreed on with the government.Construction was halted after international banks funding the airport’s renovation suspended the final $30 million of Alterra’s $120 million loan pending the dispute’s resolution.

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