Lack of bridge info forces experts to ‘Google it’

October 30, 2009

Engineers tasked with identifying dangerous bridges in order to prevent another fatal collapse are resorting to Internet images uploaded by tourists. Such is the inadequacy of the government´s own infrastructure records, a University of Costa Rica (UCR) expert engineer has revealed.

According to engineer Guillermo Santana from the UCR´s National Laboratory of Materials and Structural Models (LANAMME), the government is unable to say for certain how many more bridges could collapse like the one in Turrubares on Oct. 22, because a complete file on the country´s bridges and their maintenance history doesn´t exist.

LANAMME was nearly one year into a report advising the government on infrastructure solutions, bridge maintenance and training procedures for bridge inspectors, when a 1920s hammock-style bridge spanning the Río Tárcoles buckled under the weight of a bus carrying 38 passengers, killing five people.

“If there is no database and we don´t know what bridges we have, how can we act upon it?” Santana asked.

“For this reason we have been getting help from tourists who have uploaded holiday pictures of Costa Rican bridges onto Google and YouTube, which no doubt reminded them of Indiana Jones and was all part of their holiday adventure,” he said.

In many instances, these images provide the only basis for engineers´ assessment.

“Other than that, we have had to rely on the odd paper report filed away in different government locations and written by untrained inspectors who didn´t realize the importance of their findings and therefore didn´t prioritize them,” Santana said.

“This can happen when there are so many departments,” he said, pointing to the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) and its National Roadway Council as examples. “There is no clear responsibility.”

Since the collapse of the Turrubares bridge, the government has accepted the resignation of Public Works and Transport Minister Karla Gonzalez and replaced her with Marco Vargas, who promised to stop traffic on two hammock-style bridges in Grano de Oro de Turrialba and San Jerónimo de Esparza, making them accessible only to pedestrians, starting Friday.

Costa Rica has also commissioned a Japanese bridge expert to supervise the repair of 10 bridges identified as priorities in a separate study carried out by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency in 2007, and promised $15 million in funding.

See the Nov. 6 print or digital edition of The Tico Times for more on this story.

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