Highway Improvements May Move to Fast Lane

October 2, 2009

Most foreigners find it hard to believe that a two-lane winding road riddled with potholes in some areas and too narrow for semitrailers or buses in others is in fact the

Inter-American Highway

.

The roughly 3,200-kilometer Central American corridor, which begins on the southern fringes of Mexico and reaches deep into Panama, traverses mountain ranges, plains and cities in a trip that takes vehicles more than eight days.

Recognizing this road is integral for trade within the region, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias announced a proposal in front of four regional presidents at the 11th Tuxtla Summit in July to cut the driving time down to 54 hours through improved infrastructure and expedited border crossings.

The initiative would require an investment of more than $1.07 billion, with projects in seven countries.

“Without the infrastructure to connect the areas, despite free-trade agreements, each country will be severely affected,” Costa Rican Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González said in July. “Businesses without the infrastructure to support them will not achieve growth in equity, nor will they generate social development.”

The idea of a highway spanning the Central American isthmus was born in the 1930s, when the United States began conducting aerial surveys using new mapping technology.

In the 1940s, with heightened U.S. presence in the region to protect the Panama Canal during World War II, work began on a connector highway out of Panama.

The highway remains incomplete, as there is still no way to pass from Panama to Colombia – a breach known as the Darién Gap – but projects to improve the trek have been undertaken every decade.

Nevertheless, José López, who sends fleets of buses across international borders every day as the owner of Tica Bus, called the connecting corridor “outdated.”

“There are many challenges for all types of transport,” said López, whose Costa Ricabased  company has been making the crossborder trip for more than 40 years. “We need  to renovate the infrastructure to make it compatible with the world we live in today and to withstand the demand of public transportation and cargo.”

He cited projects under way in Costa Rica, such as the Caldera and Costanera Sur highways, but said Central America needs an overhaul of its transportation system to address factors such as security and border crossings.

The Inter-American Development Bank, which would fund Arias’ proposed project, expects it to cost a little over a billion dollars, with most of the money going to Costa Rica ($345 million), followed by Nicaragua ($177 million) and Mexico ($122 million).

But the challenge goes beyond just road improvements.

Stringing an efficient thoroughfare of blacktop through seven countries requires multilateral cooperation over issues of trade, immigration and economic affairs, which is currently lacking in the region.

Though Central America is inching closer to an association agreement with the European Union – which would require further integration in the isthmus – political events and conflicts over local policies have stunted negotiations.

“Right now, we have a fragmented view of Central America,” said Rafael Sánchez, a London-based analyst and author of the book, “The Politics of Central American Integration.” He added that when there is a crisis in one country – like what is going on in Honduras – “the whole process of integration becomes interrupted.”

Recently, El Salvador and Honduras launched initiatives to improve border crossings, cutting wait time down to about an hour. Progress has also been made toward a region-wide customs union, with trade within the region growing from $2.6 billion to $6.3 billion between 2000 and 2008, according to the European Commission.

Yet long-standing opposition to open immigration in Panama and Costa Rica has slowed progress on projects such as the highway. Exhausting border-crossing procedures – sometimes taking up to four hours, as is the case between Panama and Costa Rica – as well as cumbersome immigration processes and high taxes for transportation of goods and people make traveling on the Inter-American Highway no easy ride.

So, while the region stumbles over political conflict and resistance to change, transportation companies such as Tica Bus make do with uncomfortable roads and tedious border crossings on a stretch of highway that’s slowly becoming antiquated.

 

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