Costa Rica is known for its friendly, happy citizens, its protected magnificent wildlife and its peaceful history. Costa Rica is also known for its appalling roads – potholes aplenty, stretches of unpaved highway and narrow, bone-shaking bridges. How bad are the roads? Well, as recently as November of 2009, the Inter-American Development Bank assessment of the state of the infrastructure was ‘very severe’ and in need of $10 billion of investment to bring it to the level of some other Latin American countries!
Ticos, experts and tourists speak the same language in expressing their disbelief at the continued poor quality of the country’s infrastructure, but who or what is to blame for the condition of Costa Rica’s roads?
Obviously, money is a key issue. Costa Rica doesn’t have the money needed to pay for all the improvements needed to its neglected road network. Of course, it would help if the cash that was allocated to road repair and construction projects actually reached its destination. Talamanca’s Mayor Morales Hernández was arrested last year on charges of embezzlement of c350 million, after authorities supposedly discovered that the bridge he claimed to have built hadn’t been constructed and the project fees were assumed to be in his pocket. While this is corruption at an outrageous scale, the custom of substituting lower grade materials that stated in plans and generally cutting corners in order for those overseeing projects to earn a little extra is too common to normally warrant comment in the country’s press. Costa Ricans pay some of the highest fuel taxes in the Americas and an annual tax, Marchamo, to use the roads, but despite this the funding just doesn’t seem to be available to make those roads more useable!
Some claim that the road system is evidence of the country’s non-violent past with the reasoning that a high quality infrastructure is a priority requirement for mobilizing troops and supplies for warfare – something that Costa Rica has had no need for. This argument rather falls down if one considers other countries in the world that are neither warmongering nor cursed with poor roads – it is possible to be peaceful without potholes!
Another theory is that the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) are still guided on policy for the maintenance and construction of roads by a manual published in 1977. A new up-to-date manual is due to be completed this year, but it seems unlikely that this alone can magically solve the problems of the country’s highways. However, it may simplify procedures for granting contracts to private companies, thus avoiding situations such as occurred in 2010 when the various companies applying for the 22 new contracts for construction and maintenance were all declared invalid applications!
After last year’s terrible flooding, MOPT was quick to broadcast a television advertisement, patting themselves on the back for the rapid response made to the damage they claimed was caused to 25% of the country’s roads by the downpours and subsequent flooding. One wonders how many of the roads were in any fit state to be driven on before a rain drop hit them!
There is a rumor that the population of Monteverde is resisting any moves to improve the bumpy, unpaved road in and out of the small cloud forest town. After all, if the popular tourist spot was more easily accessible, visitors could enjoy the cloud forest in a day trip and the local hotels and restaurants would lose valuable trade! If the rumor is true, however, residents of Monteverde must be the only Ticos in the country not waiting for improvements to their highways and byways!