San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Coastal Highway Not Just a Dream?

Longtime residents of the Central Pacific and the Southern Zone have heard the promises many times before.

Dashing presidential candidates come to their towns promising to build the infrastructure needed to make the ever-elusive goal of development a reality. Infrastructure will create jobs, jobs will bring prosperity, and prosperity will allow local youth to stay in the region and not have to move to the Central Valley for work. In contrast to the incumbent government, the candidates say, they care about the region’s future and promise to once and for all complete the long-ballyhooed, 222-kilometer

Costanera Highway

connecting most of the coastal province of Puntarenas, from Barranca in the north to Barú, near the border with Panama, in the south.

Once the candidate is elected, priorities begin to change. Government resources are scarce, and central and southern Pacific infrastructure needs must compete with other, “more urgent” policy goals: fixing crumbling schools, building new hospitals, providing more resources for local police forces or paying interest on the public debt.

The administration of President Oscar Arias is promising things will work out differently this time around. Building on the progress made during the previous administration, the current government is vowing to complete the

Costanera Highway

by October of next year.

Work on paving the stretch of road between Quepos and Dominical is expected to begin this October and take one year, Public Works and Transport (MOPT) Minister Karla González recently announced.

“The paving is expected to be completed in a year, so in October 2009 we will be inaugurating the Costanera Sur (highway),” González said last week at an inauguration event for the recently completed Paquita, Portalón and Matapalo bridges.

First proposed in 1962 during the administration of President Francisco Orlich (1962-1966), the

Costanera Highway

has faced countless setbacks and delays. The project has crawled forward over the years and is now mostly complete.

The latest plan to finish the highway was set into motion in June 2003, when the government of President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) signed a $60 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to finance the project.

To this amount, the government added $22 million of its own funds. The bulk of the funds were to be used to build a 43-kilometer stretch of the highway connecting Quepos and Dominical. Remaining funds were to be used to improve several stretches of the highway and expand bridges over the major rivers along its course.

“The hardest part of the project has been the paving of the road between Quepos and Dominical,” MOPT Vice Minister Pedro Castro told The Tico Times. “We had to fight hard to obtain the rights to build.”

Plans were in place to finish the Costanera by early 2007, but delays in the approval of environmental impact studies, the expropriation of roadside properties and legal challenges made by cement companies opposed to the use of asphalt pavement held up the project, Castro said.

The delays have proven expensive. Because of rising construction material costs, MOPT estimates it will need an additional $31 million to finish the project.

Fortunately, CABEI has agreed to provide the additional credit needed to complete the project.

The previous administration finished the road between Dominical and the border with Panama. The current administration recently finished expanding the road between Barranca, near the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas, and Caldera, the country’s main Pacific shipping port.

Nearly 80 drains are in the process of being installed in the unpaved, bumpy road between Quepos and Dominical in preparation for the paving.

Work on five more bridges remains to be completed. MOPT expects the bridges over the Parrita and Naranjo rivers to be done by the end of the year, with the remaining Savegre, Hatillo Nuevo and Hatillo Viejo bridges scheduled for completion by mid-2009.

Area business owners are optimistic about the prospect of the Costanera’s completion.

They expect it to create new opportunities for the tourism industry.

“We’re eager for the road to be completed,” said Luis Centeno, president of the Osa Tourism Chamber, which represents more than 70 tourism businesses on the Southern Zone’s OsaPeninsula. “This is about more than a road. It’s about unifying the province of Puntarenas and connecting the Southern Zone to the rest of the country. It would also definitely help to increase tourism, both international and local.”

Despite having seen previous governments fail to deliver on similar efforts, Centeno said he is optimistic that the road will finally be completed. He noted that the Arias administration has made noticeable efforts to move the project forward.

Centeno added that without the Costanera, “the Southern Zone would not have development.”

Orlando Castro, president of the Costa Ballena Tourism Chamber, which represents about 40 businesses in the Dominical and BallenaNationalMarinePark area, also expects the road to lead to an increase in tourism.

“It is extremely important for our region,” Castro said. “The lack of a road represents a plug that keeps people from going past Quepos and Manuel Antonio.

The general perception is that it is difficult to get here, the roads are full of potholes, and there is no way to go back from here if there is bad weather.”

In preparation for the expected increase in tourism, the chamber has been working with the National Learning Institute to improve the quality of hotel and restaurant services offered in the region.



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