San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Good Progress, But Long Road Still Ahead

As regards progress toward improving Costa Rica’s much-maligned road system and other transportation infrastructure, 2009 will be remembered as a year of solid advances marred by controversy.

Although the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) touted its numerous transportation-related accomplishments at a year-end presentation this month, the strides made in 2009 were overshadowed by the catastrophic collapse of a bridge in Orotina, on the central Pacific, in October. That disaster resulted in five deaths and the resignation of Karla González as minister of MOPT.

Despite doubts about the safety of Costa Rica’s bridges and roads generated by the bridge collapse, some significant steps were taken during the year to improve transportation throughout the country. Some of the highlights include the improvement of 7,200 kilometers of national roadways, an estimated $50 million investment in an expansion of the JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in San José and continued improvements to the Caribbean ports of Limón and Moín. For Central Valley residents, perhaps the most significant improvement in transportation was the new Heredia-San José train.

The modest, but long-awaited, train connecting downtown Heredia, north of San José, to the capital city finally started rolling his year. The service was originally promised by November 2008, but bad weather forced the eight used cars that make up the train to arrive from Spain six months late. Then,

lawsuits prevented the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER) from conducting test runs once they arrived.

And during its first month in operation, the metro area’s latest railway project smacked a few cars and buses, derailed several times and was paralyzed by protesters who blocked the train’s passing in efforts to pressure authorities to make improvements to a nearby school.

But riders never complained.

“It’s incredible, dude,” said Jorge Jiménez, 27, a frequent passenger. “I never thought it would happen, honestly. But here it is and, boom! It’s awesome.”

INCOFER also announced plans this year to restore the tracks along the old railroad right-of-way that runs from Alajuela, northwest of San José, and then southeast to Cartago, passing through Heredia and San José on the way.

MOPT announced train plans of its own this year. The government institution hopes to hire a contractor for the construction and operation of the Electric Metropolitan Train (TREM) by mid-2010 and complete the first phase of the project by 2013.

MOPT estimates the cost will be $345 million for the entire project, and officials say the government will contribute $100 million. The company that MOPT eventually chooses to build and operate the train would foot the rest of the bill.

But President Oscar Arias derailed plans recently when he ordered a more in-depth cost study to determine whether Costa Rica can afford the project.

And, in a move that project watchdogs claimed to be long overdue, the Environmental Tribunal in September temporarily halted construction on the long-awaited Caldera highway – which will provide a quick route from San José to the Pacific coast – after work crews punctured the Barva Aquifer. That aquifer supplies water to 500,000 Central Valley residents. This occurred despite blueprints that indicated the aquifer’s close proximity to the surface.

The court ruled that Autopistas del Sol, the Spanish company that is building the highway, damaged the Barva Aquifer, the Río Tárcoles and at least 20 streams and rivers between Orotina, a town just inland from the central Pacific coast and Ciudad Colón, a Central Valley town southwest of San José.

Autopistas del Sol must fund the repairs to the waterways from an “environmental guarantee deposit” the company paid before it began work on the roadway.

On Oct. 22, tragedy struck when a neglected 100-year-old suspension bridge near Orotina collapsed under the weight of a bus, killing five passengers.

During the following two weeks, six more bridges either collapsed or were closed by MOPT after being deemed unstable.

After trying to pin the blame on the bus driver for ignoring the bridge’s weight restriction, MOPT head Karla González admitted that replacement parts had been bought for the bridge in 2002 but were never attached.

She resigned in the week following the bridge’s collapse.

The new MOPT minister, Marco Vargas, acknowledged that infrastructure had indeed been neglected for 40 years in favor of education and healthcare investment.

In the wake of the Orotina tragedy, a repair fund of $15 million was raised to replace the bridge and repair 10 additional bridges considered to be in urgent need of attention.

In sum, there were many positive gains and improvements in the country’s transportation systems in 2009. But those pluses were clouded by significant minuses.

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