Mexico and Central America are home to some of the world's most spectacular infrastructure projects as Patrick Smith reports
When completed in 2012, the US$107 million Baluarte River Bridge will be the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world. Overtaking the Millau Viaduct in France, the bridge in Mexico is said to be "the crown jewel of the greatest bridge and tunnel highway project ever undertaken in North America." More to the point, the 1,124m long structure will be part of a massive investment in highway infrastructure being carried out by the Mexican government through SCT
(Ministry of Communications and Transportation). ProMexico
, the Mexican government institution in charge of strengthening Mexico's participation in the international economy, says that in 2011, the government plans to spend more than US$4.3 billion to improve and expand the highway network, part of an important investment programme to better the nation's transportation system.
"If the highway and railroad infrastructure is like a country's circulatory system, which takes vital raw materials to each part of its geography, then Mexico's main arteries are its freeways and its veins are its railroads," says ProMexico, information that is sure to emerge at the XX1Vth World Road Congress held in Mexico.
According to figures from SCT, in 2009 Mexican freeways transported 450.9 million tonnes of products while railroads shipped 90.3 million tonnes. The highway network transported nearly 60% of merchandise that circulated through the country, while 12% was sent by rail.
"The constant modernisation of these routes, thanks to the public and private sectors, has helped make Mexico highly competitive in establishing companies whose market is the US." The Baluarte River Bridge is one such project, and once completed the final height of 390m will make it the world's second highest roadway bridge, and it will also have the longest span of any cable-stayed bridge in North America at 520m. It will exceed the John James Audubon Bridge in St Francisville, Louisiana, USA, by 37m.
The region, including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama is also home to many other major projects including the $5 billion Panama Canal expansion programme, the biggest construction project in Latin America, and possibly the biggest construction project in the world at present.
As with this project, work on the Baluarte River Bridge is continuing apace as part of the Durango-Mazatlán Highway, which will provide the only crossing for more than 800km between the Pacific coast and the interior of Mexico.
Only recently, according to national development bank Banobras, Mexico is currently developing more highway projects than any other country in the world, with ten projects underway at present.
Projects such as the Occidente and Pacífico Norte highway packages, as well as the Irapuato Highway in Guanajuato state and Chihuahua interchange mean the country has more active highway tenders than the US, which has nine, and Brazil, with seven.
According to SCT, "the main objective of the current administration is for Mexico to become the most important logistic platform in North America, in both the communications and transportation sectors." The Secretary of Communications and Transportation is key to the development of the country, with the work of the Secretariat generating progress and welfare to thousands of communities, helping to boost the national economy and generating more and better jobs, says the SCT on its website.
It also points out that investment on infrastructure from 2007-2010 was MX$31,575 million ($2.5 million), 53% comprised of public investment and 47% of private sector money.
"Based on the National Infrastructure Program 2007-2012, the most ambitious plan in the history of Mexico, the SCT has focused on promoting strategic projects to increase Mexico's competitiveness and decrease regional inequalities." The SCT says that a substantial improvement in the coverage and quality of infrastructure will only be achieved by fostering the investment of foreign private funding in the infrastructure sector, and the government has improved the conditions for foreign investors.
Meanwhile, the path of the new Durango- Mazatlán Highway is said to be roughly parallel to the famous Devil's Backbone, a narrow road that earned its nickname from the way it follows the precarious ridge crest of the jagged peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains.
The dangerous twisting route has "terrifying turns that are so tight there are times the road nearly spirals back into itself." But by offering a safer and more direct route through the mountains, Mexico hopes to improve trade and increase tourism between the city of Durango and the coastal city of Mazatlán.
It is not an easy task. Mexican engineers had to design a route with some 63 tunnels, nearly ten times more than have ever been built on any road in North America.
Including the Baluarte River Bridge, for which the main contractor is TRADECO Infrastructure
, there will be eight bridges that exceed 90m in height including Santa Lucia, Neverías, La Pinta, Chico, Botijas, Pueblo Nuevo and El Carrizo. Only China's West Hurong and Kunming-Guiyang and Italy's A3 highways have a greater collection of high bridges.
The Baluarte River forms the border between Sinaloa and Durango States, and is said to be the most formidable obstacle on the route.
Engineers chose a cable-stayed bridge so that construction could proceed outward from a single tower on either side of the canyon, avoiding the difficult and expensive construction of temporary false work.