Dreams of Highways - What was once a dream in the eyes of the administration of Rodrigo Carazo Odio, President of Costa Rica back in 1979 when the first plans for the Caldera Highway were conceived, is soon to become reality. Over 30 years ago the Caldera Highway project was initially planned. Work did not begin on the project for many more years, grinding to a halt about 10 years ago after it was discovered that the government had not yet expropriated all the land needed to build the road. About three years ago, President Oscar Arias got the project back on track.
Who's the Builder? - Autopistas Del Sol is now responsible for the design, build rehabilitation, maintenance and operation of the new Caldera - San Jose toll Road. Highways of the Sun is a consortium, a subsidiary of concessions Sacyr Vallehermoso, which has a 35% by FCC Construction, with another 35%, M & S DI-MS International Development (13%) and Soares da Costa ( 17%).
What and Why? - The 77 Kilometers, built at an estimated $238 million dollars, was financed by Autopistas Del Sol, a consortium based in Spain. The company agreed to complete the road in exchange of a 25 year, 6 month concession. This agreement allows the company to collect tolls on the road equivalent to 1120 colones (about $2 dollars) for the entire route. Here is the soon to open last stretch.
Pay us in Tolls - The first section to open was from San Jose to Cuidad Colon. When the first 310 colon toll collection started in Escazu, the opening resulted in traffic jams. Now frequent drivers on the road will be able to purchase a transponder pass, much like have been available in the US (Sunpass, EZpass, TollPass) to speed toll collection and limit traffic tie ups. There was a request to the Consejo Nacional to delay toll collection until the completion of additional work on the highway, which was rejected based on the long list of improvements that are already in place, including additional lanes in critical parts of the highway.
Illegal Entry - There have also been a number of "non sanctioned" entry points onto the new highway identified, especially in the Escazu and Santa Ana areas. After some were closed to traffic, access to some businesses was blocked, yet access roads are not yet available to replace these escapements. After some legal wrangling, access roads are now being built to deal with these issues.
Coastal Route Dream - The second completed section was from Orotina to Punteranas. This section will reduce traffic headed north on the Inter American highway since the new route from San Jose north will be faster than the old one. The last remaining section of roughly 40 kilometers, from Cuidad Colon to Orotina, is now open. it began operation on January 28th, 2010, 3 months ahead of schedule.
Autopista del Sol was authorized by the Consejo Nacional de Concesiones to begin collecting tolls on a newly renovated stretch of the Autopista Próspero Fernández between Parque La Sabana and Ciudad Colón, and now from Orotina to Caldera. Upon completion in March, the highway will go all the way from San Jose to Caldera on the Pacific coast. The road was designed to open San Jose to the port of Puntarenas. For drivers headed south, the road will cut roughly an hour off the current mountain route known as the Aguacate pass. This will bring the drive time from San Jose to Jaco to about an hour. The aguacate pass is a site of frequent accidents, weekend traffic back ups and occasional land slides. There are a number of single lane bridges along the route, numerous switch backs and grades to 10 degrees. Trucks along the pass frequently hold up traffic for miles and there are very few turn outs or passing zones along the route.
A few Mishaps - In building the new Autopista, a variety of mishaps have transpired. The Barva Aquifer was pierced at one point, a major water supply of the central valley. This stopped construction while repairs and a redesign was worked out. There was also an issue involving the negotiation of toll booths by police, fire and ambulance vehicles. Seems there was no lane designed for emergency vehicles, a necessity during rush hour.
Prize Winning Project - The European magazine Euromoney awarded a prize to this project as "Latin America PPP Deal of the Year" for managing to finance the Highway of the Sun unite the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE) and Caja Madrid for the approval and implementation of the highway.
Financing - MIGA- The multilateral investment guarantee Agency, a division of the World Bank, loaned a total of 158 Million dollars towards the completion of the project. The initial construction order was approved by the CNC (National Concession Council) and MIGA issued $158.5 million in guarantees for the development of the toll road in Costa Rica. The guarantees are covering an equity investment by FCC Construcción S.A. and Itinere Infraestructura S.A., and a shareholder loan by Caja Madrid. MIGA is providing 15-year coverage for the equity against the risk of transfer restriction. The debt will be covered for up to 18 years against the risks of transfer restriction, expropriation, war and civil disturbance, and breach of contract. This 25-year concession will be the first highway concession in Costa Rica to successfully reach financial closing and begin operations.
Credits to Vanessa Loaiza N. and the Costa Rica news daily, La Nación - Costa Rica's largest Spanish circulation newspaper, for some of the information used in this article.