San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chinchilla’s troubles continue over San Ramón highway concession

President Laura Chinchilla heads into another week of conflict as western Central Valley residents continue calling for the administration to annul a private concession with Brazilian company OAS for the renovation of a highway from the capital to San Ramón.

Chinchilla and Public Works and Transport Minister Pedro Castro held an impromptu meeting on Friday with six mayors from the province of Alajuela, following a chaotic day of protests during the previous day’s celebrations of Juan Santamaría Day, a national holiday.

Residents from San Ramón, Grecia, Zarcero, Naranjo and Palmares oppose the $524 million concession that would expand and renovate parts of the 58-kilometer highway – from San José’s La Sabana Park to San Ramón – because of the project’s high cost to the government, and to drivers, who would be asked to pay $8 in round-trip tolls to use the highway for the next 30 years. Officials say the project is needed to reduce travel time.

Chinchilla apologized to Alajuela residents after police cordoned off public access to the annual presidential speech in Alajuela to mark the holiday, and she agreed to hold public discussions in the next five months before the concession contract is scheduled to take effect. But there is no indication yet from officials that they will change any elements of the agreement with the Brazilian company.

According to Castro, annulling the concession would cost the Costa Rican government some $35 million in fines.

Some Alajuela residents opposed to the concession and organized in a group called the “Foro de Occidente,” or Western Forum, say they are organizing a national protest march to try to stop the project from moving forward, the daily La Nación reported on Sunday.

Other opponents hope to annul the concession by pointing out an alleged conflict of interest by Castro, who was contracted by OAS to conduct a feasibility study that extended the concession from 25 years to 30, reported last week.

The Municipality of San Ramón and attorney Roger Barboza asked the country’s Comptroller General to look into the allegations.

Meanwhile, the row also has divided members of Chinchilla’s own ruling National Liberation Party. Both San José Mayor Johnny Araya  – the leading contender to replace Chinchilla following elections next year – and party president Bernal Jiménez criticized the administration for failing to make negotiations more transparent.

Chinchilla also was scolded for the handling of last Thursday’s events in Alajuela, too. The Costa Rican Journalists’ Association asked the communications and presidency ministries for a public apology from members of the presidential security team who allegedly manhandled reporters at the presidential speech on Juan Santamaría Day. And the Costa Rican Ombudsman’s Office said the administration had erred in blocking residents from accessing areas around Juan Santamaría Park.

“Respect is gained with ideas, frank dialogue and by looking for solutions to a situation that by all appearances has angered many people,” Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum said in a press release.

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