While the results may not be seen for months, or years, officials from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) announced last week that a series of measures is being taken to improve Costa Rica s pothole-covered roadways.
Crews have already begun work filling the chasms that characterize roads from the Atlantic to the Pacific, according to Transport Minister Randall Quirós. But beyond this Band-Aid solution, the ministry is also attempting to find a long-term answer to the classic excuse for the pathetic state of the country s roads: lack of funds.
Under an agreement made last week between MOPT, the National Roadway Council (CONAVI), the Finance Ministry and Banco Nacional, bonds will be sold to finance the construction and reconstruction of some Costa Rican highways.
These bonds will be repaid with future CONAVI funds received from gas and automobile-ownership taxes. The financing system, which MOPT Vice-Minister María Lorena López called different and creative, allows CONAVI to immediately access funds for large projects of vital importance to the country. Officials will prioritize works and avoid leaving CONAVI without future funds for maintenance, Quirós added.
Reconstructing theInter-American Highway, north
and south, is one project that could be developed through this new financing structure. Completing the route that partially circumnavigates the capital with the construction of the missing link between Calle Blancos and La Uruca, in northwest San José, is also a possibility. Officials also envision the construction of six much-discussed bridges over rotundas along this circumnavigation route, which would be a major remedy for traffic woes and similar to the bridge over the rotunda that leads to San Francisco de Dos Ríos, southeast of San José.
MOPT and CONAVI have been strapped for funding for these and other more routine projects since two years ago, when the government began prioritizing control of the fiscal deficit over improving infrastructure. Legislators have failed for three years to approve a tax bill aimed at increasing government revenues. In response, the government has reacted by sharply cutting the budgets of MOPT and other institutions by as much as two-thirds.
By law, CONAVI is funded entirely by a percentage of gas and auto taxes amounting to approximately ¢54 billion ($109 million) annually for national road maintenance and construction, according to Quirós. However, the Finance Ministry has refused for more than five years to turn over the full amount. This year, for example, CONAVI was given only ¢12 billion ($24 million). The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) has ruled several times during the past year that the Finance Ministry must turn over the funds in full.
While the ministry has failed in the past to obey these rulings, the bonds used in this latest plan are guaranteed by the commitment of the Finance Ministry to turn over the tax funds. The state s failure to do so could be construed as fraud, explained Quirós. The Superintendence of Securities (SUGEVAL) will monitor the bonds.
MINISTER Quirós estimates Costa Rica needs $250 million annually over four years to modernize its road system, the daily La Nación reported. Under the new financing system, CONAVI will initially issue $100 million in bonds.
Quirós claimed recent natural disasters have made the infrastructure crisis more severe; when reminded by reporters last week that Costa Rica s roads were in poor condition before any hurricanes or earthquakes struck, however, he finally admitted to institutional shortfalls. For three years, roads on the Pacific coast have lacked maintenance because CONAVI and the ministry have lacked a contract with a company to provide regular upkeep. In addition, the closure of the railway system a decade ago has meant more heavy cargo on the roads, causing accelerated deterioration, Quirós said.
IN an effort to make some of these roads at least drivable, contracts have been signed for ¢785 million ($1.6 million) in repairs for 170 kilometers of national highways. Work already began earlier this month on the stretch along the Inter- American Highway between Arizona and Liberia, in the northwest province of Guanacaste, a project that will cost ¢487 million ($986,000).
Companies have also been contracted to make repairs to routes in between the coffee town of Atenas and the Pacific port of Caldera; Tempisque and Pueblo Viejo, where work has begun; and the La República building, in northeast San José, and the bridge over Río Sucio in BraulioCarrilloNational Park to the northeast. Work also has begun to repair 129 kilometers of theInter-American Highway
the Southern Zone, on the stretch from the Panamanian border town of Paso Canoas north to Paso Real, at a cost of ¢421 million ($852,000).
The ministry is working out the details of a contract to repair the highway between Bribrí and Sixaola on the southern Caribbean coast, damaged by floods in January. Authorities say $2.8 million in repairs are expected next year.
BUT representatives of tourism and construction chambers say most of these projects are just filling potholes short-term answers on roads that have long-term problems.
During a conference with the National Tourism Chamber (see separate story), CONAVI admitted the recuperation plan has turned the clock back 20 years on some roads in Guanacaste, the Southern Zone and the Central Pacific, by returning them to gravel after having been paved asphalt for years.
Delays in the lengthy government approval process for contracts to improve or maintain roads has contributed to the poor state of the system, Quirós said. The new financing system with bonds will address this by allowing CONAVI to solicit approval for projects by the Comptroller General without having the money on hand.
A number of long-term projects are expected to start at the beginning of the year. Construction will begin in February on the last stretch of the coastal highway along the central Pacific between Quepos and Barú, near Dominical. The first phase of the project involves leveling the land and constructing drainage along the 42-km route at a cost of $17.6 million. The second phase of paving the road with asphalt, at a cost of an estimated $19 million, has yet to be finalized or contracted.
North of that project, work is expected to begin next month on the transformation of a 12-kilometer stretch along the coastal highway between El Roble and Caldera into a friendly highway with lighting, a bike path and sidewalks, at a cost of $4.2 million.
BEYOND roads, construction finally began last week on two long-awaited pedestrian bridges over the General Cañas highway, which connects San José northwest to Alajuela. The bridges, which will have ramps rather than steps to make them wheelchair-accessible, will be located in front of the mall Plaza Real Cariari and the Los Arcos residential community in Belén, Heredia. Officials expect construction to be completed in May at a cost of $283,000.
In addition, CONAVI hopes to build six other bridges by the end of next year around the greater metropolitan area near Multiplaza mall, in the western suburb of Escazú; CIMA hospital, in the same area; and various residential communities.
In addition, MOPT officials announced installation of smart traffic signals to improve traffic flow is expected to be complete by 2007. The stoplights will be installed in 325 intersections throughout San José at a cost of $4.6 million, financed by the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI).
In addition, officials hope to make a ¢500 million ($1 million) investment to install a similar system in the cities of Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago, outside of San José, in 2009.