Costa Rica’s ‘New’ Highway from San Jose to the Pacific Coast at Caldera – Part I

The original idea to build a new 77 kilometre (49 miles) route between San Jose and Caldera goes back to 1978 – 30 years ago.

The goal for the new highway is to provide a safer and faster (less than one hour) route between San José and the Central Pacific region of the country which would be beneficial for import and export activities, and would also help tourism and farming development in the region.

The project originally was for a 25-year concession (including the construction period) for the design, planning, financing, construction, rehabilitation, improvement, operation and maintenance of the San José-Caldera toll road in Costa Rica

History: This is a long, convoluted story spanning 25 years with numerous corporations from different countries that were supposedly going to do the work. Then the contract was handed to another consortium and then another and to be blunt… It has been impossible to determine which company is now supposedly going to do the work.

The most recent news stated that Autopistas del Sol, may be getting involved in the project although nothing has been confirmed.

There are three parts to the new San Jose, Costa Rica to Caldera highway project:

  • Part 1: San José – Ciudad Colón. This segment corresponds to an existing 14.2 KM long highway from Gimnasio Nacional in San José to the entrance of Ciudad Colón. Since this section of road is already in place, the works to be carried out will consist of rehabilitation work only.
  • Part 2: Ciudad Colón – Orotina 38.8 KM. The Government of Costa Rica has already completed the construction of the five major bridges located on this segment however, the road needs some serious improvements.
  • Part 3: Orotina – Caldera. This 23.9 KM segment corresponds to an existing highway that starts at the end of the Ciudad Colón-Orotina segment and ends at Caldera. This section is blocked in places because of landslides and needs very serious improvements.

How Much Will It Cost?: There have been a number of cost estimates for the project ranging from $144 million, $150 million and $162 million.

Based on the past performance of ‘public works’ in any country, it might be safe to assume that the final cost will be significantly more than the estimates quoted above. Even if the road was miraculously finished for under $150 million, it is still an enormous sum of money for a small Central American country.

So after talking about the “new highway” for over quarter of a century, what has actually been done?

The US$34 million work to build the bridges began in 1998 and finished in December 2001. The five major bridges on the proposed route have indeed been built and are between 144M – 306M in length and depth of 50M – 115M.

The expropriation process to acquire the necessary land for the new road has nearly been completed with only for seven remaining properties to be settled.

The first bridge lies over the river Virilla, situated between Santa Ana and Alajuela’s San Rafael. The second bridge is over the river Ciruelas and the third bridge spans the river Grande in Atenas.

There is no access to the last two bridges – one over the river Concepcion in Atenas and the other bridge over the Salitral river in Orotina. Both bridges are practically abandoned in the mountains where there is no access by any kind of vehicle because of landslides.

Some experts are saying that the bridges are already deteriorating as one can see by reading the La Nacion article entitled Puentes de vía a Caldera se deterioran. Alejandro Molina who is a director of CONAVI stated that “the metal joins between the bridges and accesses are dirty and can lead to serious deterioration.”

Unfortunately as you can see from the photographs, the existing dirt road where the highway will eventually be built is presently being used more by cows than humans and, unfortunately, many people have been using it to dump their construction debris and other garbage.

Although no road building expert, one question that has crossed my mind is that how fast will the route actually be if some of these bridges are only one lane either way?

And at present, you would be very unwise to drive faster than 20KM per hour in a solid 4X4 unless you wish to hear the ‘Clunk!’ of parts falling off your car.

Is this new Costa Rica highway even needed? An alternative route to the Pacific would certainly be useful, maybe not so much now, but certainly in planning for the future of the country from both a business, agricultural and tourism standpoint.

The more critical two part question might be; can Costa Rica afford to build this new highway and, if it is a toll road which is being proposed, will there be sufficient traffic, willing to pay those tolls to help fund that new highway? As yet, we have been unable to identify the toll booth locations or establish what the charge might be…

Will the price of your Costa Rica real estate rise when this highway is eventually built as many real estate sales people are fond of saying? I would suggest that after talking about if for over quarter of a century, any possible appreciation is already built into the price of the real estate that’s for sale along the route.

Most investments move higher in ‘anticipation’ of good news, people in Costa Rica have been ‘anticipating’ this for 25 years. However, there is a lot of work to be done and hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent before Costa Rica’s “new highway to the Pacific” is finished.

Please see follow up article to this at The New Costa Rica Highway from San Jose to the Pacific – Part II – Contracts Signed

Our thanks to our friends at La Nación – Costa Rica’s largest Spanish circulation newspaper for their permission to include one of their photographs and images.

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