They make tourists tremble, and even the most intrepid locals think twice.
Costa Rica’s bridges have long been the butt of jokes, but a bridge collapse in the U.S. state of Minnesota last week reminded the world – and officials here in Costa Rica – of the risks of poorly maintained infrastructure, even in the richest of countries.
“It’s a serious situation,” said Daniel Gallardo, director of the country’s National Emergency Commission (CNE), who was attending a conference in the United States this week. “Many of Costa Rica’s bridges were built 80 years ago when we were still carting coffee around on horseback.”
A recently released, two-year study of the country’s bridges by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) seems to concur.
The study, which occupies three hefty, lime-colored books and hundreds of pages and comes complete with diagrams likely only an engineer could decipher, found that “most of the 1,330 bridges on national highways suffer from severe deteriorations caused by earthquakes, river flooding and increasing traffic volume.”
Specifically, the report analyzed a representative sample of 29 of the country’s national roadway bridges – managed by the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) – and concluded that “deficiencies in road maintenance has allowed those deteriorations to reach more critical levels.”
Problems include damage to the bridges’ deck slabs, or surface – caused by heavy traffic, a “lack of rigidity”of the floor frames, slope collapses around abutments and damaged joints and railings, among others.
Despite the concerns of the Japanese engineers, Pedro Castro, Vice-Minister of Public Works and Transport, assured The Tico Times he’s confident Costa Rica won’t experience a disaster like the one that just occurred in the United States.
“Most of our bridges are in good condition – they just need updating,” he said. He added that abuse and minor problems “doesn’t mean they’re not safe.”
The Tico Times tried over a period of four days to obtain the results of the bridge study – ending with a visit to the Bridge division in the ministry’s headquarters, a fluorescent-lit, cubicle crammed office space on the second floor that shakes as trucks pass by on the road below.
Director María Gonzalez said she is disappointed with recent articles that had appeared in the national press, saying they’d “over-stated” the actual situation, but acknowledged that most of the country’s bridges are almost 50 years old, or older, and nearing the end of their lifespan.
“They need maintenance, but they’re not at the point of collapse,” she said, reiterating the Vice-Minister Pedro Castro’s statement.
She likened the bridge maintenance to car repairs.
“You can either make small repairs, at a lower cost, or overhaul it entirely,” she said. For decades, she said, Costa Rica has chosen the former.
Time to Overhaul
The National Emergency Commission has acted as the Ministry’s surrogate parent – dealing with the country’s decrepit bridges only after they collapse.
The problem, said Director Daniel Gallardo, revolves around the country’s rapid development in the past two decades.
“The number of cars on our roads has increased five times, but our infrastructure hasn’t kept up,” he said. “We still have bridges that are made from the trunks of trees.”
The Japanese study found that the Ministry’s facilities are severely lacking in infrastructure, technology, education and human resources.
Specifically, it says “the skills of the staff… are not sufficient,” and that “bridge inspectors are not trained and the bridge inspections are not carried out properly.” It also cites a lack of coordination between municipalities, which are in charge of local roads, and the Ministry, which oversees national highways.
Costa Rica has 6,800 bridges in all – 5,500 of which pertain to municipalities, and were not even considered in the study.
Tractor-trailers and other large, heavy vehicles were rare, even non-existent on such roadways just 20 years ago, Gallardo said, but are now commonplace, particularly as tourism and construction increase.
Combined with the elements – including Costa Rica’s notoriously severe May- to December- rainy season, and Gallardo calls it a recipe for disaster.
“We’re currently working on 137 bridges,” he said, most of them in the north, from Los Chiles south through the Caribbean-slope canton of Limón, thanks to flooding in the region last month (TT, July 13).
He said the waiting list for bridge-repair work has grown long – more than 200 bridges in all.
Public Works Vice-Minister Pedro Castro said one quarter of the ministry’s budget –almost $25 million – has been set aside for bridge work – far more than that of previous administrations.
A good portion of that, he added, would go toward the Costanera Sur, the stretch of coastal highway from Barranca, near Puntarenas, south to Palmar Norte, near the OsaPeninsula.
“This road is becoming more and more important, and its bridges require our attention,” Castro said.
Japanese engineers also supplied detailed plans for the rehabilitation and reinforcement of 10 of the country’s bridges – the bill for which could run as high as $11 million.
Many of the projects – which the Japanese experts estimate should take between 60 and 200 days, depending on the scale of the work, sport hefty price tags.
Repairs on the Route 32 bridge over Río Chirripó, between San José and Limón, will cost $3.3 million, and another, on the
over Río Abangares in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, needs $1.4 million in work.
According to Vice-Minister Castro, many of these projects are scheduled to begin this year.