San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Education in Infrastructure

Carlos, a friend of mine, is 30 years old and lives with his father. He is a structural engineer and has found the recession particularly tough.

For this reason, he still lives at home. He was offered a job with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) three months ago, two months before the Tárcoles bridge collapse that killed five.

Despite being offered a job, he wasn’t given a firm start date. He found himself calling MOPT every Monday to ask when he could start. He received three calls from three different people at MOPT two weeks ago. The first person told him that his start date had been postponed until December, the second said he would start in January and the third asked him to come in that Friday for an induction before starting work the following Monday. Needless to say, my friend went in on the Friday and has been there ever since.

While the connection with this and the recent spate of bridge collapses, the death of five people, the resignation of Karla González as minister of MOPT and an attempted overhaul of the country’s bridge infrastructure may not be immediately obvious, it could be argued that it’s symptomatic of the confusion, dilly-dallying and bureaucracy that appear to reign at MOPT, and which helped bring about the chaos in the first place. The left hand appears to not know what the right hand is doing, and vice-versa.

Concentraton on investment in education and health care has been cited by Marco Vargas, the new MOPT minister, as the reason for the country’s 40-year neglect of its infrastructure.

“We are a third-world country with first-world education and health services. We couldn’t do everything. It is what the people wanted,” he said.

Fine, but surely this doesn’t excuse the fact that bridge surveys warning of the risk of imminent collapse were repeatedly ignored and replacement parts were purchased, yet left rusting in a MOPT warehouse. And why did MOPT bother with its own costly survey of the bridge over the Río Tárcoles in 2006 if it had no intention of acting upon the findings?

It’s also worth noting that a supposed lack of funds resulted in 40 years of neglect, yet a $15 million repair fund was found within days of the Tárcoles bridge collapse in October. Had the tragedy not occurred, who would have decided it was time to overhaul the system? Where would the buck have stopped?

So, how safe are we in a country that has in the region of 3,500 bridges, many of which are close to reaching their centenary? Well, the answer, sadly, has to be: not very. Since the Oct. 22 collapse of the hammock- style bridge connecting Orotina with Turrubares, on the central Pacific, it is no coincidence that six more bridges have either collapsed or been closed due to risk of collapse.

The lifespan of many of these bridges has all but expired; it is simply a question of how quickly the government can identify the most dangerous ones and repair them before they, too, collapse. Ten of the national government’s 1,344 bridges (another 2,000 or so are the responsibility of the municipalities) have been categorized as high-risk and are first on the list for repairs. But, what about the others? The assessment survey only investigated 40 percent of the bridges in the first place, and, according to an engineer from the University of Costa Rica’s LANAMME, a governmental advisory organization, there exists no real file on the repair history of these bridges, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to which bridge goes next.

Pinning the blame squarely on anyone or any organization, however, is impossible since responsibility for the problem seems to be shared by so many. If it isn’t the fault of MOPT, it’s the fault of the drivers who cross bridges with loads exceeding the weight allowance. If it isn’t the fault of the unqualified engineers tasked with assessing the danger of the bridges, it’s the administration that ignored the surveys or filed them away in the wrong place. If it’s not the fault of the government, it’s the fault of the fickle voter who favors the man who promises a new school and not a new bridge. And so it goes.…

So what is the answer? Perhaps Carlos holds the key – a young MOPT engineer who is a product of this first-world education system that for years deprived the infrastructure coffers of vital funds. Let’s now see the fruit of this investment in education, and let’s see it do what it is supposed to do: pay off.


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