San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Citizens Give Road Rage New Meaning

In the face of the government’s reluctance tocomply with a 2001 law requiring that gas taxrevenues be spent on road repairs, private citizens– tired of the brain-jarring potholes carsand buses must jolt across every day throughoutCosta Rica, with no end in sight – have begun totake matters into their own hands.Various municipal governments joined forcesmore than a year ago to sue the central governmentfor road-repair funds. Others have turned to the legislatorswho live in their communities for funds ora voice in their favor.In the northwestern province of Guanacaste, privatebusinesses raised money to repair battered roadwaysthemselves. Most recently, citizen Oscar Campos gotthe government’s attention by filing his own lawsuitagainst the Executive Branch before the ConstitutionalChamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV).THE government, however, maintains that the lawin question – the Law of Tax Simplification andEfficiency, or Law 8114 – forces the government to hand over funds it can’t afford to spend.“On one hand, we have a law thatestablishes a determined percentage (forroad repair),” Vice-President LinethSaborío told The Tico Times this week.“On the other hand, we have the financialsituation of the country. It is like a goodfather who wants to give his childreneverything they want, but cannot.”At the heart of the conflict’s currentstage is the National Roadway Council(CONAVI), the agency responsible forrepairing national highways. According toLaw 8114, 30% of the revenue from gastaxes must go to CONAVI and municipalgovernments for road repairs.The destination of this 30% “is specificin character, and its payment is obligatory forthe Finance Ministry,” the law states.THIS year, the gas tax should provideCONAVI with an estimated ¢53 billion($113.73 million), but the FinanceMinistry has budgeted only ¢22 billion($42.21 million) of that amount for thecouncil, according to Sandra Camacho,CONAVI’s budget authority.As a result of what Camacho called asignificant cut – the ministry gaveCONAVI ¢31.27 billion ($67.10 million)for 2004 – the council spent 40% of itsroad-repair resources for the entire year inJanuary and February alone, she said.The reduced funding forced CONAVIto “focus on obligations we already had,projects already begun,” she said, adding itis likely the council will use up its entireannual maintenance budget in the next fewmonths if no additional funds arrive.HELP may be on the way. TheLegislative Assembly has approved a measureto grant CONAVI ¢23 billion ($49.36million) more for road maintenance andrepair, more than doubling the availableresources. The Comptroller General’s Officeis now reviewing the bill, according to officespokeswoman Yanory Obando.Given the government’s reaction torequests for roadway payments in the pastyear, however, the future of those extrafunds is far from certain. Much of thatfuture lies in the hands of the Sala IV,which has become the authority both sidesconsult – time and time again.Ten municipalities from across thecountry successfully sued the FinanceMinistry last year for ¢10 billion ($22 million)for roads, arguing Minister FedericoCarrillo was breaking the law by withholdingtax revenues. (Municipalities areresponsible for repairing all local roads.)Carrillo did not take the ruling lyingdown, and sent a “request for clarification”to the court arguing the ministry did nothave to turn over the funds because Law8114 did not create new taxes.He said the expenditures would increasethe national debt and impoverish CostaRicans, and that municipal governmentshad not done an adequate job collectingtheir own taxes (TT, Nov. 19, 2004). Thehigh court rejected this line of reasoning.IN December 2004, Campos, a retiredCONAVI employee frustrated by watchinghis tax dollars go to ends other thanroads, filed his case before the Sala IV. OnJan. 10, David Fuentes, Vice-Minister ofFinance, and Vice-President Saborío sentthe court a response, asking that the courtexcuse the government from its obligationto pay the funds.“There is a history of the FinanceMinistry not providing funds to CONAVI,”said Campos, who estimates he pays¢6,000 ($13) per week in gas taxes. He toldthe Tico Times the shortfall this year is theworst he has seen.Campos’ case is still under considerationby the Sala IV.CONFLICT over the nation’s roadshas drawn impassioned commentary froma variety of groups, from tourism authoritiesto trade officials, all of whom say thereis much more in the balance than a morecomfortable commute to work.Trade Minister Manuel González hassaid that infrastructure problems often preventproducers of pineapples, melons andother key agricultural export crops fromtransporting their produce to the nation’sports in a timely manner. Roadway problemsare a limiting factor in the country’sexport future, González added.The Costa Rican Construction Chambersent a strongly worded letter to PresidentAbel Pacheco this week, criticizing the government’s“total and absolute lack of short orlong-term planning.”OF the government’s response to themost recent suit against the government,chamber president Jaime Molina said, “Wehonestly prefer to think that this has allbeen the work of a mistake or lack of technicalknowledge of the matter.”“We don’t even want to think aboutwhat will happen to our highways if thisstrange request is accepted by the Sala IV,”he continued.Tourism officials speak with urgencyas well. On exit surveys for tourists, thestate of the country’s highways and roadsare one of the only areas to consistentlyreceive low marks (TT, Jan. 7).IN Guanacaste, owners of hotels andother businesses were not willing to risklosing clients because of bad roads (TT,Dec. 24, 2004). Instead of waiting for governmentfunds, members of the GuanacasteTourism Chamber donated a total of$85,187 to repave 51.7 kilometers ofroads, including routes between the townof Huacas and Belén, Flamingo, Matapaloand Villareal, and the road between Playasdel Coco and Playa Hermosa.Contributors to the project ranged fromtravel agencies, hotels, community associationsand even a bus company,Transportes La Pampa Tralapa.Another road repair desperation measure– appealing to community legislators– has been less successful.Two legislators have recently beenaccused of accepting funds from communitymembers for road repairs never made,while a third was criticized for pullingstrings to ensure the road in front of herhouse was repaired while other communitieswaited in vain (TT, Feb. 11).

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