San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Q&A: MOPT Vice Minister Rises to Challenge of Improving Country's Roads and Bridges

Being a higher up in the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) entails facing close public scrutiny and criticism, and accepting a virtual inability to please most anyone. Not every pothole will be filled, bridge secured or infrastructural failure avoided during the harshest months of rainy season downpours. In the next few years, as the nation invests heavily in improving its infrastructure, the spotlight will grow even brighter.

But María Lorena López likes the challenge. So much so, that after serving as MOPT’s vice minister from 2002-2006, she returned to the post last May for a second go-round, this time with a more defined emphasis on building and maintaining the nations’ roads. 

As soon as she returned to the job, as if on cue, criticism of MOPT and the National Roadway Council (CONAVI) – the ministry’s agency tasked with maintaining the country’s national highways – began pouring in. The latest issue at the top of the national transportation debate is financial, as municipalities are vying for a larger share of the national transportation budget (TT, Sept. 3).

CONAVI receives 75 percent of the government’s transportation budget of $290 million for national roads, while municipalities receive 25 percent for local roads. Nearly 80 percent of all Costa Rican roads are municipal roads. 

In August, Alvaro Jiménez, president of the National Union of Local Governments (UNGL), presented a draft bill to President Laura Chinchilla and the Legislative Assembly that proposes to split the road budget evenly, with half the resources going to CONAVI and the other half to the municipalities. Jiménez argues that the bill would provide a framework to implement the Law to Transfer Executive Powers to the Municipalities, which was passed in May. The law requires that at least 10 percent of the national budget be managed by the municipalities.

López vehemently disagrees with Jiménez’s proposal, arguing, “you cannot even begin to compare the importance of national roads to municipal roads.”

López, who holds master’s degree in transportation and transportation engineering from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., met with The Tico Times in her second-story office at MOPT headquarters in east San José to discuss her responsibilities, the ongoing debate with the municipalities and the ministry’s future plans.

TT: What are the biggest challenges of your job?

MLL: The challenges of my role at this time are to try to resolve the most urgent transportation problems that exist in Costa Rica. We have many important challenges in the area of bridges. We are also in a historically important moment in terms of the amount of financing that has been approved by the Legislative Assembly. At this time we are managing a $300 million (loan) approved by the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) and around $60 million approved by the Andean Development Promotion Corporation (CAF). This ministry hasn’t seen loans this size in many, many years. The decisions that must be made to utilize this type of external financing appropriately are a big challenge. It is important to execute them efficiently and quickly and, while doing so, to continue to look for further financing. At this time we are trying to establish new sources of financing with national banks to assist with the construction and repair of bridges.

One of the biggest challenges in regards to (infrastructure) planning is the technical ability to focus not just on the next four years, but to look years and decades ahead. There are things that need to be established now to assure that the future of the nation’s transportation is improved as well. I am overseeing the current national plan for transportation and it is imperative that we create a plan not only for the short term, but for 20 to 30 years in the future. There are not many of us working on the plan, so creating one is also a tremendous challenge.

TT: Who is responsible for deciding what the most urgent problems are in national transportation?

This is an interesting question because deciding the priorities for national transportation is a rather complex process. The priorities are decided “by the book,” and we have a certain way of deciding what project receives priority over another. Every highway is important, so deciding which is more important than the other is a challenge.

For example, the highways of Plan Mesoamerica, which includes some of the most important routes for exports, are clearly prioritized. They carry the cargo of this country to and from other countries. They are vital roadways. But, at the same time, they are the roadways that require the most investment. For example, the project to widen the highway from two to four lanes between Cañas and Liberia (in Guanacaste province in northwest Costa Rica) is an expensive project, but it is of the highest priority. 

On the other hand, this country has big challenges in the matter of equality, particularly in bringing development and opportunities to other areas of the country. So, for example, there are important investments that need to be made in rural roads that are gravel that should be asphalted.

Another large challenge is with the congestion and traffic in San José. We have to continue working to resolve the amounts of traffic that exist in the city and complete the appropriate projects to do this. 

So, with the limited amount of resources that we have, we have to find a balance between them all. 

As of today, the projects we are focused on are the passageways for cargo and trade that connect us to the rest of the Americas, urban projects to relieve the continued problems of congestion and traffic, and rural projects to promote construction and tourism

Recently, there has been a considerable amount of media coverage about the complaints of the municipalities regarding their lack of resources for infrastructure. What is the relationship between MOPT and the municipalities?  

MOPT, which includes CONAVI, oversees the network of roads considered to be “national roads,” which are roads created by law to connect the citizens of the country, including roads that connect one district to another or roads that connect to ports, airports and national borders. These are considered national roads. They are the roads of the state.

This network consists of 7,500 kilometers. The rest of the roads in the country are district (cantón) roads that belong to the municipalities.

MOPT is actually just one body in the entire transportation sector. MOPT serves to collaborate with the municipalities to solve the municipalities’ specific needs. We work to achieve cooperation agreements and to establish legal guidelines that determine which projects belong to the municipalities and which projects belong to the state. If we determine that it will be very difficult for the municipalities to complete the projects due to their budget, MOPT takes on the responsibility to prepare materials for the municipalities to be used on their roads or bridges. For example, MOPT has an asphalt mixing plant that often mixes the asphalt for the municipalities to provide them a less expensive option for obtaining necessary materials. 

Basically, what we do is cooperate with them. … But, as decentralization is implemented, we will continue to be less involved in the decisions of the municipalities.

We are currently managing $200 million for the improvement of municipal roads. But the finances are in their hands, and they decide what needs to be done. The only thing we do at MOPT is facilitate the contract.

What is your opinion on the budget distribution between the municipalities and CONAVI? Should it be equally distributed?

No. Absolutely not. I completely disagree with the efforts to equally distribute the budget between the resources of CONAVI and the municipalities. The network of roads for CONAVI is a strategic network. It is a network of high traffic roads. It is a network that requires maintenance that is extremely expensive. It requires, not only adequate technical operations, but in many cases logistical operations. The importance of the national roads cannot be compared to the importance of municipal roadways. While the municipalities have a larger area of kilometers, it cannot be compared to the backbone of the system of transportation, which, without a question, is the network of roads managed by CONAVI.

What were are advocating is that, if this country wants national infrastructure to be at a high quality, we are going to have to invest a lot more money into national roadways than we are currently investing.

If there is a bridge, for example, that is in bad condition and the municipality wants to repair it, what is the process of getting that accomplished and does MOPT assist in any way with the project?

If the bridge is not considered on a roadway under CONAVI, the municipality has to repair it. If it is considered a national roadway, it is the responsibility of CONAVI to fix it. And that is where the confusion originates. For years, there has been a great deal of insufficient technical maintenance, insufficient knowledge and inability of the municipalities to take the appropriate steps to attend to their problems. There has been a great deal of dependence on MOPT to solve the problems of the municipalities, which can exhaust the ministry. MOPT always responds to the municipalities with engineers, materials and personnel to repair the bridge because the municipality cannot take care of it themselves. Often, if something like a bridge collapses in a municipality, they turn to MOPT to fix their problems.

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