Engineers tasked with identifying dangerous bridges in order to prevent another fatal collapse are resorting to Internet images of Costa Rican bridges uploaded by tourists, such is the inadequacy of the government’s own infrastructure file.
According to engineer Guillermo Santana, from the University of Costa Rica’s National Laboratory of Materials and Structural Models (LANAMME), the government is unable to say for certain how many more bridges are at risk of collapsing like the one in Turrubares on Oct. 22, because a complete file on the country’s bridges and their maintenance history doesn’t exist.
LANAMME was nearly one year into a report advising the government on: how to assess the risk of its bridges, infrastructure solutions, bridge maintenance and training procedures for bridge inspectors, when a 1920s hammock-style bridge spanning the River Tárcoles buckled under the weight of a bus carrying 38 passengers, killing five.
Santana said, “If there is no database and we don’t know what bridges we have, how can we act upon it?
“For this reason we have been getting help from tourists who have uploaded holiday pictures of Costa Rican bridges onto Google and YouTube, which no doubt reminded them of Indiana Jones and was all part of their holiday adventure.”
In many instances, these images provide the only basis for the engineers’ assessments.
“Other than this, we have had to rely on either recollections from technicians who, in the Turrubares case, carried out work 40 years ago or the odd paper report filed away in different government locations and written by untrained inspectors who didn’t realize the importance of their findings and therefore didn’t prioritize them,” Santana said.
“This can happen when there are so many departments,” he added, pointing to the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) and its National Roadway Council (CONAVI) as examples. “There is no clear responsibility.”
As part of LANAMME’s research, 418 of the country’s 1,450 bridges were surveyed, taking into account their actual state, their age and design.
Results from the study show that half of the structures are more than 50 years old, while the remaining 40 percent have been in use for more than 30 years. Ninety percent of the bridges were thus considered close to or past their recommended life span.
“All of the 418 bridges, from those that receive less than 500 vehicles a day to those, such as the one on the Route 1 highway to the JuanSantamaríaAirport, that receive up to 80,000 vehicles a day have been under-maintained and neglected,” said Santana.
Since the collapse of the Turrubares bridge, the government has accepted the resignation of MOPT minister Karla González and replaced her with Marco Vargas (see separate story), who has promised to make two hammock-style bridges in Grano de Oro de Turrialba and San Jerónimo de Esparza accessible only to pedestrians beginning today.
It has also commissioned a Japanese bridge expert to supervise the repair of 10 bridges previously identified as priorities in a separate study carried out by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2007, and it has promised $15 million in funding from the World Bank.
The World Bank has since denied the Costa Rican government the funds on the grounds that credit up to $65 million is available to attend emergencies, not to prevent them.
Eugenia Sancho, spokesperson for Minister Marco Vargas said, “Following a meeting with all of the parties concerned, we have managed to raise $12.5 million through the National Emergency Commission and are expecting MOPT to provide the remaining $2.5 million. Work will contuinue as usual.”
The Japanese expert is expected to arrive at the beginning of next year and work alongside MOPT and JICA engineers, repairing bridges that registered “high risk” on a scale of 1 to 10.
The 10 priority bridges are located above the Río Aranjuez, Río Abangares, Río Azufrado, Río Puerto Nuevo, Río Nuevo, Río Chirripó on Route 32 and Route 4, Río Sarapiquí, Río Sucio and Río Torres (see map).
Santana said, “I imagine a large part of the $15 million will go towards replacing the Turrubares bridge, so it will not be enough to cover the costs of all the other bridge maintenance needed.
“It is incredible that a shortage of money was cited as reason for not maintaining bridges in the past, yet as soon as the Turrubares bridge collapsed and five people died, $15 million suddenly appears.
“What you have is two realities. One is the political cycle lasting four years and the other is the 75-year lifespan of these bridges. Who wants to take responsibility and spend money on maintenance when government changes hands so many times within a bridge’s lifetime?”
Requests for comment from MOPT were unanswered by press time.