The National Roadway Council (CONAVI) this week will ask Costa Rica’s Comptroller General’s Office to approve a ₡1.5 billion ($3 million) budget change to fund a long-awaited overhaul of the main road to Monteverde, one of Costa Rica’s most-visited tourist destinations.
Tourism is the main economic activity in Monteverde, a Quaker community and cloud forest preserve in the Tilarán Mountains, and local business owners say a new road would go a long way to help boost the local economy.
CONAVI engineer Eugenia Sequeira said on Monday that a response from the comptroller’s office is expected in two weeks. But Monteverde residents have been waiting for CONAVI to file that request for months.
The current gravel road is dismally worn-out, particularly after rainy season storms make travel to the area nerve-wracking, if possible at all. Surveying for a new road began in June, and the construction company RAASA initiated minor repairs to the road in October.
The gravel road to Santa Elena and Monteverde has been repaired several times over the years, the most recent occurring earlier this year when CONAVI fixed damage caused by the previous year’s Nicoya earthquake and harsh rainy season.
JIMOSA, a private contractor, performed that work at a cost of ₡100 million ($200,000), allotted from CONAVI’s roadway maintenance budget.
The total planned investment in the upcoming overhaul is ₡8 billion ($16 million), Public Works and Transport Minister Pedro Castro said in February.
Local residents expressed relief when the project finally was announced, but recently they have grown concerned that things are moving much too slowly.
Community groups like the Comité Pro Nueva Carretera, Comité Pro-Asfaltado de Carretera a Monteverde and the Foro de Monteverde have traveled to San José each week to meet with government officials and make sure “things get done,” business owner Guido Montero Porras told The Tico Times.
Montero said that this week, if the budget request stalls, the groups were ready to “increase the pressure.”
A bumpy road
Monteverde residents have been talking about a new road for 15 years. It took public demonstrations to pressure President Laura Chinchilla’s administration to finally move things forward in February. That month, Chinchilla visited the area and promised to pave 17 kilometers of road to Santa Elena, the main access town to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
But CONAVI changed plans in June, saying it would carry out the project in two phases – not one – in which they would first make repairs to the current gravel road, including replacing culverts at a cost of ₡960 million ($1.9 million). Those funds were to come from CONAVI’s roadway budget.
In the second phase, the gravel road would be covered by a layer of asphalt, requiring an additional ₡1.5 billion ($3 million), a budget-modification request that requires the Comptroller’s Office’s approval.
But CONAVI delayed submitting that request, prompting the concern of local residents.
CONAVI Director Cristian Vargas last week responded to the concerns by saying, “There are legal procedures with which we must comply before moving to other phases of the project.”
Yet the request to amend the budget was only approved by CONAVI’s board of directors on Nov. 11.
A joint effort
Residents are so anxious for a new road that 97 property owners agreed earlier this year to donate part of their land and to move fences back to allow for roadway expansion.
Monteverde Tourism Chamber President Danny Ramírez said business owners have seen a drop of up to 40 percent of tourist visits in the past two years, forcing “at least seven businesses” to close in recent months.
Monteverde councilman José Francisco Vargas said that a “solution is in the [national] government’s hands,” and that even members of the local government are “very concerned” about the delays.
“If the current condition of the road continues, we will only keep losing visitors,” he said.
Business owners noted that nearby communities already are cashing in from the decrease in visitors to Monteverde. Ramírez said that some tour operators are reluctant to recommend Monteverde as a destination out of concern that travelers’ vehicles would be damaged.
Of the work that has been done, several issues contributed to delays. For example, initial plans outlined a 3-meter-wide road, but an Oct. 28 study by the University of Costa Rica’s National Structural Materials and Models Laboratory (LANAMME) said it should be built “with two asphalt lanes of at least 3.30 meters width each.”
Then, another LANAMME evaluation last month noted that new culvert pipes were unsuitable for the amount of rainfall in the area. They were replaced.
Business owners hope the road will be finished in late 2014 or early 2015, but no one is certain. Said Montero, “It all depends on how fast the red tape is overcome.”