What’s inside the sinkhole? Click here to find out
The torrent of storms brought on by the start of the rainy season exposed another weakness in Costa Rica’s oft-maligned highway infrastructure.
A giant sinkhole opened up Tuesday night at one of the main arteries in and out of the capital. The ensuing tumult on General Cañas Highway – traversed by 100,000 vehicles per day – resulted in hours of delays, hurt local businesses and caused tourists to miss flights out of the country.
Heading into the weekend, the Costa Rican government enacted a contingency plan for the highway that connects San José to the northwestern province of Alajuela and the country’s main airport. Bailey bridges, detours and increased train hours will assist highway commuters. However, the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) stated the sinkhole and the damaged sewer system below the road will take at least three weeks to fix.
The chasm – 3.5 meters wide and 4 meters deep – is in front of Plaza Los Arcos in Ciudad Cariari, northwest of San José, and several minutes from the Juan Santamaría International Airport. A tree trunk clogged the sewer system below the highway, and heavy rains caused a buildup of water and the eventual collapse in the road. The highway closure begins at Juan Pablo II Bridge in La Uruca, a northwestern district of the capital.
José Luis Salas, director of the National Roadway Council, said construction workers will work nonstop, rain or shine, to repair the damage. Workers are installing two 30-meter Bailey bridges over the sinkhole. The portable metal bridges should be ready for public use by the weekend.
Progress also was made in the placement of two new sewer pipes that will expand the old sewage system, MOPT Minister Luis Llach said during a visit to the site Thursday morning.
Llach explained that the bridges have a load capacity of 40 tons, enough to support normal traffic on the road, including light and heavy vehicles.
This weekend, MOPT officials will open a temporary route through a stretch of road at El Coyol, in the province of Alajuela, which connects with the San José-Caldera Highway, to help ease traffic congestion on General Cañas Highway.
The part of the General Cañas Highway where the sinkhole occurred previously was worked on in 2010. Transit officials at a contingency-plan press conference Tuesday avoided answering why the weak infrastructure had not been fixed two years ago.
The contingency plan creates a bypass around the hole using reversible lanes on the side of the highway not affected by the sinkhole. Public transportation receives priority on the route. The reversible lanes are in effect from 5 a.m.-9 p.m.
In addition, the railway that connects Heredia to San José extended its hours while repairs continue. The first train runs at 5 a.m. and service continues throughout the morning until noon. Afternoon trains start at 3 p.m. and run until 7:30 p.m.
Telenoticias Channel 7 reported Thursday that morning trains were filled to capacity, and many commuters faced long delays. Railway officials said train hours could increase depending on demand.
Still, the traffic situation seems to be improving after the nightmarish snarl that occurred Wednesday. A frenzied reaction accompanied the initial news of the
sinkhole. Drivers sat in delays of up to two hours while trying to enter and leave the capital.
Alternate routes became congested as well. Long lines of cars were reported on Route 27 (San José to Santa Ana), streets near La Uruca and on roads connecting San José to the province of Heredia. On both Wednesday and Thursday, an accident caused substantial delays for the alternate route between Santo Domingo, in Heredia, and Tibás, a northern San José district.
On Wednesday morning, MOPT recommended commuters who use the to “take a vacation.” Traffic Police on site pleaded with drivers to maintain patience.
As the mess persisted, Costa Ricans took to the Web to poke fun at the country’s transportation woes. Savvy Web users Photoshopped everything from Bugs Bunny to Satan to Chilean miners emerging from the sinkhole.
Travelers unfortunate enough to have a flight out of the country found little amusing about the situation. Silvia Chaves, a spokeswoman for Aeris, a company that manages Juan Santamaría International Airport, said officials tried to assist hurried passengers the best they could.
“We set up a special protocol to deal with the passengers as they arrive. They are given priority for immigration procedures, exit taxes and access to the planes. The terminal is working as usual. There have been no delays so far,” Chaves said Wednesday.
She said some passengers have missed their flights, but it is up to each airline to resolve those issues.
The National Tourism Chamber stated that a United Airlines flight to Houston that left at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday was missing 40 passengers. Taca Airlines said approximately 20 travelers missed flights. The airline extended its check-in an extra 10 minutes to accommodate late arrivers. Even though the contingency plan has smoothed the flow of traffic, airline customers are recommended to leave early in case of further delays.
Construction workers have been on the scene around the clock to remove debris from the sinkhole site. The manhole where the collapse occurred will be reinforced with concrete.
MOPT announced Thursday afternoon that a new sewage system with more capacity will replace an older drain that became clogged with rainwater and debris, which caused the sinkhole.