San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Residents irate over new toll

From the print edition

Monday morning traffic was backed up for more than a kilometer along Route 27 between Ciudad Colón and Santa Ana, southwest of San José, due to a modestly sized but well-placed protest by community members against a tollbooth.

The march was made up of walking protesters and trailing vehicles from some two dozen communities directly affected by the toll on the Caldera Highway, which began charging motorists in late February. Juan Carlos Antillón, a community organizer from Ciudad Colón, said 1,000 people participated in the event that lasted three hours at the near peak of rush hour traffic. National Police estimates pegged the number at around 100, while Spanish-language news agencies estimated between 200 and 300.

Raúl Rivera, general director of the National Police in San José, said 70 officers escorted the protesters along their route. He said no arrests were made and no violent incidents were reported. The police wore riot gear, helmets and body armor, and some toted automatic weapons. Antillón criticized the officers’ display of force and said they more resembled army soldiers than officers at a peaceful protest.

Antillón said Monday marked the start of a long, determined and peaceful resistance against the tollbooth, which since its installation has disrupted the everyday lives of area residents. Protesters have taken issue with the toll’s management by a foreign entity, Spanish company Autopistas del Sol, which financed the new road’s construction. They claim Costa Rica is doing wrong by putting private companies in charge of public resources. An administrative court of appeals recently rejected a lawsuit launched by the opposition challenging the toll stop.

 Antillón said the toll diverts drivers who don’t want to pay the fee onto inadequate, alternative roads through neighborhoods, and although a one-time payment is nominal – about ₡150 ($0.29) for a car or motorcycle – daily trips add up in the long run. He said more marches would be conducted as a manner of peaceful resistance. He characterized Monday’s demonstration as a success in communicating to the rest of the country community members’ stance on the issue.

 But above the community level, big players are applauding the construction of the new highway and the private-public coordination that made it possible (see story, Page 4). Autopistas del Sol boasts on its website that the highway was completed under a concession agreement, in which the public sector gives control over to a private entity in return for an investment. Similar projects include renovation of the Juan Santamaría International Airport outside of San José, the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, in the northwestern Guanacaste province, and the $948 million Moín port renovation on the Caribbean coast, to be undertaken by Dutch company APM Terminals (TT, March 3, Jan. 21, 2011).

U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Anne Slaughter Andrew, at a Wednesday conference about public concessions to private companies, touted the Caldera Highway as a highly successful project and a model for furthering the infrastructure development of Costa Rica. The new highway significantly cuts travel time between the capital city and the Pacific coast. Andrew equated increased tourism with more jobs, less travel time and savings on fuel costs. 

But residents who live near the controversial tollbooth see things differently. One complaint of local residents is that the first section of the highway was in place well before the new highway was built. Now residents are being charged to use the old road that was paid for by their taxes. For residents in Puriscal, there are no alternative routes to avoid paying the new toll. 

Víctor Aguilar, 48, who operates a bus company in Puriscal, grew up 500 meters from where the tollbooth is located in Ciudad Colón. He was 12 when the road was first completed. Until a little more than a week ago, Aguilar said the road to San José was free.

“It’s completely unjust and illegal,” he said. He added that from his residence in Puriscal it is virtually impossible to leave his community without facing a toll fee.

He summarized what he saw as local residents’ sentiment about being charged to leave their own city: “You can call 100 people and you will get 101 responses in opposition to the toll.”

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