San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Transport Head Defends Agency’s Actions

Marco Vargas took on the role of minister of Public Works and Transport following Karla Gonzalez’s resignation in the wake of an Oct. 22 bridge collapse, in which five people were killed, in Orotina, on the central Pacific. The collapse of a rusting, 100-year-old suspension bridge under the weight of a bus carrying 38 people exposed years of inattention to the country’s bridge infrastructure on the part of the national and local governments, as well as an apparent disregard for the safety of those who rely upon the bridges.

TT: Is it true that that the government doesn’t have a complete and up-to-date maintenance record for its bridges and therefore can’t appreciate the immediate danger they may present to the public?

MV: No, that is not true. There are 1,344 bridges throughout the country’s national road network for which the government is responsible, and we have a record of their varying states. We have already ordered the closure of certain bridges, and engineers are currently at work deciding if more should be closed.

The remaining 2,000 or so rural bridges within the country’s 81 cantóns are not the responsibility of the (national) government, but rather of their municipalities.

Fifty per cent of these municipalities do not have records, for it is often the case that their bridges are extremely small. We are, however, interested in devising a national action plan for the entire country’s bridge network.

According to a government-backed investigation by the Japanese cooperation agency JICA, 20 percent of our bridges on national routes need repairing. Ten bridges have been prioritized as urgent and are being attended to at a cost expected to run to $15 million by the end of next year

Since the World Bank denied the Costa Rican government a loan of $15 million, how can it afford the repair work?

The World Bank’s policy is to offer credit to a country when it is in a state of emergency owing to a national disaster. We were refused on the grounds that our application was to fund preventative work.

We have, however, managed to raise the money from elsewhere, thanks to a combination of donations from the Emergency Commission, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) and the National Roadway Council (CONAVI). Money has already been spent in Orotina, and a Bailey bridge should be in place by Nov. 20 (at the site of the collapsed bridge).

With regards to our long-term infrastructure plan, we are looking to raise $200 million, although this is something that has to be arranged by the Finance Ministry, other ministries and international agencies.

Numerous private studies informed the government that the Orotina bridge was at risk of collapse, yet were ignored. What’s more, in a press conference immediately after the tragedy, the ex-minister, Karla González, admitted that replacement materials were bought for the Orotina bridge in 2002, yet never used. Is the government therefore responsible, and will the families of the victims receive compensation from the government?

First of all, the government receives lots of studies and can’t act on all of them. The materials bought in 2002 were not for that specific bridge. Of course we could never have foreseen an accident of that magnitude, and there is currently an investigation underway to determine exactly how it collapsed.

There are various theories as to why it collapsed. One is that for a sustained period of time drivers in vehicles weighing more than four tons ignored the maximum weight allowance sign and crossed the bridge. Another is that a vehicle had previously struck part of the bridge and weakened the structure.

It will be for a judge to decide on compensation claims but, yes, just as in other countries, families of the victims will of course be able to make claims against the government. A bridge recently collapsed in the United States, killing a Costa Rican and his family, (and family members) made a claim against the U.S. government.

Why has infrastructure been neglected for so long?

For the last 40 years the government has not had the financial resources to invest in infrastructure. We are not a first-world country, but rather a poor country, and the people decided some years ago that resources should be invested in health and education. You will see that Costa Rica now has a first-world level of health care and education and, sadly, an inadequate infrastructure. We are working on it and doing our best to raise money to improve the situation.

The government tenure lasts for four years, while most of the country’s bridges have a 90-year lifespan. Could it be that governments in the past have passed the buck and left costly repairs for future governments to worry about?

No, it doesn’t work like that. When each new government enters office it has what is called a plan of national development, and infrastructure is always a priority. Sadly, we have had between 30 and 40 years without the necessary resources to tend to all aspects of infrastructure, such as bridge maintenance.

This particular government has certainly made big steps by stimulating economic growth and directing taxes towards infrastructure. A huge number of bridges have been repaired under this government. It’s just that we couldn’t repair them all. We must also praise the ex-minister for her securing of credit to repair and improve bridges and lament her departure for she was one of the finest ministers in this government.

We realize that the bridges are an urgent priority, and we are working at solving the problem, not leaving it to the next the government.


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