San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Officials Focus on Shoddy Sidewalks

It’s happened to many of us. One minute, you’re strolling down the sidewalk or stepping off a bus in San José, enjoying the summer weather and avoiding pickpockets; the next, a crumbling surface or open ditch sends you tumbling to the ground.

The experience has left many a visitor, not only to San José but also to cities and towns around the country, wondering why municipalities don’t do a better job maintaining the sidewalks.

The answer? Legally, it’s not really their job. According to Costa Rica’s Municipal Code, home and business owners are responsible for building and maintaining a sidewalk in front of their properties. The municipality must inspect the sidewalks and warn, then fine, citizens who aren’t ensuring their upkeep.

The often shoddy results – many sidewalks are cracked, uneven or simply nonexistent, while the inconsistency of building materials and heights makes walking a challenge even when the surfaces are in good shape –are almost as infamous as the poor condition of the country’s roads, but recent events have drawn new attention to the problem.

Last month, 5-year-old Mayeli Guiselle Flores was struck and killed by a dairy truck while walking on a street that lacked a sidewalk in the western suburb of Santa Ana. A few days later, the Ombudsman’s Office denounced municipalities for failing to ensure property owners build and maintain sidewalks.

“This isn’t the first case,” Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada said in a statement regarding the Santa Ana incident. “How many residents will have to continue putting their lives (at risk) each day for this reason?…

Why are local authorities so passive in looking for solutions to problems?…

Having a sidewalk in your neighborhood isn’t just a right, it’s also a need.”

The government appears to be responding, though the details aren’t yet clear. Karla González, who heads the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT), said Jan. 17 that her ministry would prioritize sidewalk improvements in their collaborations with the new mayors set to take office next week.

She did not return phone calls by press time, but did tell The Tico Times on her way out of a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that MOPT is working on plans to improve sidewalks, both “with and without municipalities.”

Meanwhile, San José Mayor Johnny Araya has announced plans to budget ¢115 million (approximately $221,150) to rebuild the city’s sidewalks and make them handicapped-accessible, Al Día reported. Luis Guillermo Freer, head of the municipality’s Urban Inspection Department, told The Tico Times that under the new plan, the municipality would fix sidewalks, then charge the property owners.

Words of Warning

Julie Goins, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Costa Rica for 14 years, was walking down Paseo Colón – a street with heavy vehicle and foot traffic in western San José – on her lunch break a few years ago when she tripped over a badly buckled sidewalk and broke her right ankle, an injury that had her on crutches and unable to drive for months.

However, Goins, who now works in property management in the large northwestern beach town of Tamarindo, also voiced a larger concern: some sidewalks in San José may be of poor quality, but in other parts of the country, they’re missing altogether.

“It’s a whole other animal out here,because (property owners) just don’t want to put in a sidewalk,” she said of Tamarindo, overseen by the Municipality of Santa Cruz.

“I wish we did have sidewalks for the tourists, because they have to walk in the middle of the road.”

“The rules exist – people just don’t follow them,” she added. “Some businesses have (sidewalks), and others don’t, or they use (the sidewalk space) as parking.”

Jorge Salas, the municipal council president and mayor-elect of Tibás, north of San José, admitted that not all municipalities go through the motions of inspections and fines for bad sidewalks. He told The Tico Times the local government there hasn’t cracked down on negligent homeowners.

The law “hasn’t been applied… There’s been a lack of motivation,” said Salas, who takes office Monday. He added that when he takes the reins, there will be “a change of attitude,” and that he hopes to emulate Araya’s plan of including sidewalk repair in the municipal budget.

Freer said the situation is different in San José, where 11 district inspectors, along with two additional inspectors who focus solely on sidewalk quality, patrol the city. When they find sidewalks in poor condition, they give property owners a warning.

If the problem isn’t corrected, officials exact a fine of ¢930 (about $1.78) per square meter of sidewalk area in front of the building, 50% more if the building is a business rather than a home. The fine increases every three months – if owners correct the problem, they’re expected to contact the municipality to ask for another inspection – and is billed with municipal taxes. (Municipal tax evasion, however, is a common problem throughout the country.)

Freer, a 31-year municipal employee, said this system does work and that he’d qualify the city’s sidewalks as “regular.”

The Municipal Building itself, incidentally, is surrounded by lovely sidewalks – but just west of the rear entrance, the sidewalk outside a private business is inexplicably located about four feet off the ground, meaning that pedestrians must either leap onto the concrete strip or walk in the busy, narrow road.

And sidewalks aren’t the only problem. U.S. citizen Regina Rosa has spent $40,000 in doctors’ bills and a year of painful recuperation from her roadside injuries, as well as months of unsuccessful efforts to hold someone responsible.

One year ago yesterday, Rosa, who was in Costa Rica for cosmetic and dental surgery, got off a bus at the bus stop outside the Hotel Irazú in western San José, and fell into the drainage ditch lying directly below the exit.

In e-mails to The Tico Times, Rosa, 68, explained that the injuries to her leg and foot left her unable to walk, or to leave Costa Rica until June 2006.After surgery, weeks in a cast and boot, and physical therapy, she is “walking now but not running nor dancing, and it remains to be seen if I ever can again,” she said this week. “My ankle is still swollen, rather deformed, and my balance is off. I use a cane or hold on to someone when I walk. I have two long permanent titanium screws inside my left ankle for life.”

Unlike sidewalks, bus stops are sometimes built and maintained by private companies with municipal concessions in exchange for being able to sell advertising space at the stops. According to Gerardo Rivera, secretary of the San JoséMunicipality’s Engineering Department, the stop near Hotel Irazú was built by Equipamentos Urbanos de Costa Rica, S.A. This week, after The Tico Times showed Rivera a photo of the stop, an engineer was sent to inspect the bus stop, after which the department ordered Equipamentos Urbanos to cover the ditch.

The company did not return Tico Times’ phone calls or an e-mail by press time.

What Can You Do?

Can the families of victims such as Mayeli Guiselle, or accident victims such as Rosa or Goins, do anything about the situation? Can anyone be held responsible for these incidents?

Rosa did her best to find out, with disappointing results.

“I ultimately was told that the businesses had no liability whatsoever for the condition of their walkways, nor does the bus company… have any responsibility for the condition of the bus stops they use,” she said in an e-mail. “That sounded like so much doubletalk to me but it describes the situation.” The lawyers with whom she spoke didn’t provide any further optimism.

“One attorney told me that I could sue but it would take 10 years, I’d lose, and it would cost a fortune,” she wrote. “I have also been told that the municipality has (responsibility) but isn’t responsible if they haven’t the funds to do the repairs.”

Lawyer Agustín Atmetlla told The Tico Times that while people who feel they’ve suffered injuries because of negligence on the part of municipalities or businesses can certainly sue in Costa Rica, judges don’t tend to side with victims.

“The courts here don’t tend to convict (in such cases),” he said. “The attitude of the courts is, ‘Watch where you step’…It’s not that the law doesn’t exist, but rather that (judges) say it’s not the sidewalk’s fault.”

According to Rivera, from the municipality’s Engineering Department, if you spot problems with bus stops, sidewalks or other pedestrian areas in San José, you should contact Mónica Coto in the Citizen Service Office at 295-7160; for bus stops, Rivera at 295-6108; or for sidewalks, the Urban Inspection Division at 295-6131.

People in other regions should contact municipal leaders. And watch your step.

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