On lousy roads, the state and towns collide

August 27, 2010

 

In an interview with The Tico Times in July, Vice President Luis Liberman said transportation in Costa Rica is often “in the hands of God.”
 
Liberman’s sentiment is widely shared. Be it crossing a rickety bridge over a gushing river in a rainstorm or making a narrow turn on an unmarked and unlit foggy mountain pass at night, traveling on Costa Rica’s roads can sometimes be terrifying.
 
In large part, this fear is based on repeated instances of infrastructure failures throughout the country. In the last year, a bridge partially collapsed over the Río Seco in the western province of Puntarenas and closed the Inter-American Highway for several days; a three-car accident on the Lagarto River bridge on the same highway killed two when the lead driver slammed on the brakes to avoid a large pothole; a motorcyclist was killed when she struck a fallen rock on the new Caldera Highway to the Pacific; and – in the most notorious incident – six people died and two were seriously injured when an 80-year-old wooden suspension bridge collapsed near the Pacific-slope town of Orotina, causing a bus to plunge into the Río Tárcoles.
 
As the incidents add up, the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) continues to be reactive in its responses, often announcing plans to rectify problems only after an accident has occurred. Two days after the bridge over the Río Seco partially collapsed in late July, MOPT responded by vowing to improve or rebuild 29 bridges throughout the northwestern Guanacaste province. When the motorcyclist on the Caldera Highway perished in May, the new highway, whose January opening was considered by many to be rushed, was closed so additional construction to prevent further accidents could take place.
 
But the ministry’s new leadership, headed by Vice Minister María Lorena López, recently has been surprisingly candid about the condition of national infrastructure. Last week, López referred to the current administration of the nation’s roads and bridges as “very ineffective.”
 
López’s statement followed a June report by the Comptroller General’s Office that found that ¢4.9 billion ($9.8 million) in bridge materials purchased by MOPT in 2008 remained unused, and were decaying in a fenced lot under heavy rain and sun. The materials, which include hundreds of large beams and pillars, were intended to be used for improvements on municipal bridges and roads in parts of Alajuela, Sarapiquí, Tibás and Chilamate.
 
According to Carlos Acosta, director of the National Roadway Council (CONAVI), the failure to use the materials is a result of a lack of initiative on the part of the municipalities. By way of the Tax Simplification and Efficiency Law, commonly known as Law 8114, any transportation infrastructure not considered national roadways is by default considered district roads, which are the responsibility of the municipalities to maintain. MOPT and CONAVI can provide the municipalities materials to build or maintain infrastructure, but their use remains the responsibility of the local governments.
 
For more on this story, see the Sept. 3 print or digital edition of The Tico Times.

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