COSTA RICA JOURNAL – Built for 25.000 vehicles daily, almost five years later, traffic on the Ruta 27 from San José to Caldera (Puntarenas) is almost triple that, about 70.000 at peak times.

During its more than two decades of planning and several starts and stops, the Spanish consortium Autopistas del Sol (now calling itself Globalvia) was awarded the concession contract, to build out a faster route between San José and the Pacific coast.

The road, I can remember all the hype, was to have been a four lane road from La Sabana park to the port city of Puntarenas, with a travel time in less than one hour.

In reality, when the 76 kilometre road was officially opened in January 2010, we got six lanes from the Sabana to Mutiplaza Escazú, from there four lanes Cuidad Colon, and the rest two lanes, with a few short stretches of four lanes in between, mostly before and after the toll stations. Between Orotina and Pozón it can’t even be called a highway, it is the same old road with a new pavement, complete with improvised access to fruit stands and what have you.

Caldera101The promise of travel to the Pacific in less than an hour is still true, when there is no traffic.

On most weekends, especially during the high vacation season of January to March, the highway becomes reversible between Orotina and Cuidad Colón, with scores of traffic cops assigned duty to stop traffic accessing the highway in between. During the limited time traffic moves only in one direction, after that, back to a snail’s pace and then the ‘less than an hour’ goes out the window.

Earlier this year, Globalvia presented a plan to expand the highway (Cuiadad Colon to Caldera) to four lanes. The cost is estimated at several hundred millions of dollars, which of course will be recovered through higher tolls.

The concessionaire has not yet sat down to discuss with the Government the expansion draft, but there are leaders convinced of the inadequacy of the company and the inability of the people to pay a toll increase of road that did not exist five years ago and exists today solely because a concession and a toll.

In an editorial today, “autopistas sin peaje” La Nacion says:

“Again and again, the country renounces the development of road infrastructure for fear of having to pay. There are no resources to do the work by the state and no one is going to build a road with no return on investment and a reasonable profit. The construction thus depends on tolls. This is how highways are built around the world, but in Costa Rica, the priority is not to pay for the right of way or, at best, to pay little, so little that it is not possible to finance the work.

The works are always too expensive and the companies investing to develop them are judged as greedy and profiteers. These companies are often seen as opportunists bent on delivery the worst possible in exchange for high profits.

The solution is to do nothing. This leads to serious consequences such as the deterioration of existing structures and stalling of economic development.

Construction work is governed by prejudice, short-termism and the absurd impression that the state can take over to improve the quality and cost, as if there was not ample evidence to the contrary, in addition to insurmountable financial barriers.”

Despite it all, the Ruta 27 has helped improve travel to Guanacaste and the southern zone. If timed properly, travel between San José and Liberia is less than three hours. Travel to the Panama border means not having to go through San José and the Cerro de la Muerte.

Any expansion includes rebuilding the bridges, built years before the road and without vision for future expansion.
Any expansion would require the rebuilding of the bridges (all two lanes), built years before the road and without vision for future expansion.

Last weekend the Ruta 27 was shut down between Atenas and Orotina, forcing drivers to use the Monte de el Aguacate route, commonly known as the old road to Jacó. It reminded us all what a chore that trip used to be. Most, even the bus operators, prefer to use the Ruta 27 than Interamericana Norte (Ruta 1), saving time and fuel, despite the payment of tolls.

I doubt the expansion of the Ruta 27 will take place.  A move backwards for a country that is struggling to move forward.