San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Highway Closed

Early last Saturday morning, thick orange barriers with blinking yellow lights were placed across the

Caldera Highway

, closing an 11-kilometer stretch between Atenas and Orotina on the 5-month-old highway.

The closure, which blocks kms 37 through 48 of the 77-kilometer road between San José and the Pacific port of Caldera, comes in response to heightened scrutiny over insecure conditions on the road after heavy rains resulted in mudslides during the past few weeks. Since its opening in January, mudslides and falling rocks have been responsible for several injuries and one death on the highway.

Last week, calls for a temporary closure of the highway heated up when a report by the Costa Rican Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA) stated that “urgent intervention” was needed to improve the road.

The report also mentioned that, “It is only a question of time before a mass of materials drops onto the highway (near Atenas)” (TT, June 11). President Laura Chinchilla responded to the report by declaring that repairs to the highway “should be considered.”

Last Friday afternoon, pressure to close the highway forced Autopistas del Sol, the private firm that built much of the road and that is responsible for its operation, to announce the temporary closure.

“Autopistas del Sol demonstrated its willingness to close certain stretches of the road when the users were faced with situations of risk,” the company said in a statement. “At this time, according to our technical, financial and legal information, it is not opportune to close; however, we are going to proceed with the agreement as instructed.”

In the interim, drivers will be re-routed through the Monte del Aguacate highway, the old passage between Orotina and Atenas. This winding, narrow road has been the primary route to the Pacific from the Central Valley for much of the country’s history. The statement released by Autopistas del Sol said that they hoped the roadway would be fixed in the “short term.”

Though the 11-kilometer stretch of the highway is expected to be reopened within two to three months, the closing begged the question: Why was an insufficiently prepared highway opened in the first place?

“From our perspective, there was still a significant amount of work to be completed prior to the opening of the highway,” Olman Vargas, CFIA executive director, told The Tico Times this week. “After our analysis, we found that several stretches of the highway were very poorly constructed and could potentially be very dangerous for those travelling on it. We are completely in agreement with the closing.”

Criticism of the highway was widespread throughout its construction, which cost an estimated $229 million. Prior to the opening, Imnsa Ingenieros Consultores (IMNSA), the  company contracted to oversee construction, detailed numerous flaws in the project, including narrow driving lanes and shoulders, poorly distributed concrete, irregular bridge walls and steep hillside cuts that were susceptible to landslides (TT, June 5, 2009).

But despite numerous warnings about the highway’s unsafe conditions, former President Oscar Arias inaugurated the new highway onJan. 27. After cutting the ceremonial ribbon, Arias said, “We were a country of five-star hotels and one-star highways. But with projects like these, our highways and infrastructure will no longer be a national embarrassment” (TT, Jan. 29).

He may have spoken too soon. While the smooth, modern highway might look like an improvement, the closure of 11-kilometers of the highway less than five months after its opening is indeed considered by many to be a national embarrassment.

“We are seeing the consequences of the Arias administration inaugurating this highway before it was finished so (Arias) could take credit for it,” said Marvin Rojas, a former legislator from the Citizen Action Party (PAC), who closely monitored the construction of the Caldera road. “It wasn’t ready, and now the problems are falling to the next administration. It is an example of government irresponsibility.”


The Upside to Landslides


While the Atenas-Orotina detour adds about 30 minutes to the trip in either direction, business owners in these two communities, who saw a tremendous slide in revenue with the opening of new highway, are celebrating.

Over the weekend, citizens of the towns lined the roadway selling food, snacks, clothing and artisan goods to the hundreds of drivers passing through, taking advantage of the increased traffic while it lasts.

“We have been completely full every day this week, from Saturday through today,” said Carla, who works at the CoopeAtenas gas station and supermarket, and who asked that her last name not be printed. “There has been a big jump in business for most everyone here. Taxis are busy again and the restaurants are seeing more visitors. We are going to enjoy it for these two months.”

While small businesses in the Orotina-Atenas area will benefit in the short term, travelers and taxpayers will continue to be miffed. According to MOPT, since January, an additional $40 million has been invested to solve the highway’s problems, while $2 million more will be needed over the next two months.

If all goes as planned, the Caldera highway will be reopened in a few months, again offering commuters a 45-minute straight shot to the Pacific. But this depends on everything going as planned, something that has eluded the highway since it was first proposed over 30 years ago.

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