Highway concessions, tolls are a bad idea for Costa Rica

It’s appropriate that President Chinchilla has canceled the concession to Consturtora OAS Ltda. for making minor roadway improvements and charging tolls to the section of Costa Rica Carretera Número Uno between Aéropuerto Juan Santamaría and San Ramón. And it’s even more appropriate that the Poder Judicial is investigating the Consejo Nacional de Concesiones and the would-be concessionaire and associated construction firms.

I’m very familiar with the highway, especially between Alajuela and Grecia, traveling it round-trip three days/week. I’m also very familiar with the stretch between the Grecia exit and San Ramón. The stretch between the airport and the Grecia exit has several points that back up to stop-and-go traffic during rush hour, principally those areas where two travel lanes go to one lane. The two principal bridges in that stretch are those crossing the Rio Poás downhill west of the La Garita exit and the Rio Rosales bridge just east of the Fábrica Nacional de Licores.

According to information published in La Nación, the concession agreement did not provide for OAS to add any travel lanes, which means that the bottlenecks where two lanes reduce to one would remain under the concession. The claim made by the Consejo Nacional de Concesiones and the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes that improvements to the highway made by OAS would cut the rush-hour travel time in half, in spite of the addition of three toll plazas, was ludicrous. The addition of the toll plazas would certainly lengthen the necessary travel time at any time of day, especially during rush hour.

There was little information provided to the press by transport ministry agencies and the would-be concessionaire about the proposed “improvements” to the highway, but they appear to be limited to widening of some shoulders, replacement of some safety barriers (which ought to be done within a week of their damage in an accident by CONAVI, but that stretch has missing barrier sections that haven’t been replaced in years, if not decades), and construction of an overpass to allow traffic from San Ramón to enter the highway without having to stop at the existing stop sign. Insignificant improvements and investment not remotely justifying a ¢2,000 one-way toll.

To bring the airport-to-San Ramón stretch of Carretera Número Uno to modern highway standards, the entire stretch should have two travel lanes in each direction, including the bridges over the Río Poás and the Río Rosales. The highway should be re-routed such that no grades exceed 6 percent — overly steep grades such as those both east and west of the Río Poás and Río Rosales bridges need to be re-routed, possibly including new much longer and higher bridges and approaches constructed.

Such major re-construction ought to be funded by loans from an international financial institution such as the Inter-American Development Bank or World Bank or international development assistance from an international donor country and repaid by reasonable tolls combined with general tax receipts. The experience with Autopistas del Sol, in which the government of Costa Rica funded construction of the most expensive bridges and turned over long-since constructed and freely used stretches of the highway such as that between San José and Santa Ana to the concessionaire, after which the concessionaire refuses to reveal to the government how much it collects in tolls, clearly demonstrates that the concessionaire build-and-toll paradigm is a bad deal for the citizens, businesses, and local governments of Costa Rica.

Loren B. Ford

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