Pacific express

  • 2018-09-20 06:00
  • Michael Donlevy
  • Mexico

Mexico’s Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta ‘Via Corta’ is an ambitious road-building project that has had to overcome a number of setbacks. But, as completion is now within sight, it is hoped delays will soon become a thing of the past.

Work is continuing on the Via Corta, a 103-mile (166km) toll road that, once completed, will link Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Ironically, however, a project that is intended to slash journey times between the two major cities has been delayed several times by the sheer complexity of the task at hand.

There is certainly a need for the highway. Puerto Vallarta is Mexico’s second most popular tourist destination behind Cancún, attracting more than four million visitors per year. Much of the traffic that arrives on the west coast resort comes from or through Guadalajara, which is on the route from Mexico City, causing an increase in congestion and pollution. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Nayarit Riviera, north of Puerto Vallarta, is also an increasingly popular tourist destination that has been undergoing heavy development in recent years.

The Via Corta – which means ‘short route’ – reduces the length of the drive from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta by 49 miles (78km) and is intended to cut journey times to a total of three hours. That’s a reduction in traveling time of 90 minutes, according to Mexico’s Communications and Transportation Secretariat (STC).

As the government department in charge of the highway, the STC has faced a series of challenges that have delayed the project, which is split into three sections: a 34-mile (54km) stretch from Jala, on the Federal Highway 150 to Compostela; a 19-mile (31km) section from Compostela to the Nayarit coastal town of Las Varas; and a final 50-mile (81km) highway south from Las Varas to Bucerias in Puerto Vallarta.

The first section, which was originally due for completion before the end of 2015, finally opened in April 2017 and in itself reduces the journey time by at least 25 minutes, but by up to an hour during the high season, according to the STC.

The second section is scheduled to open in December 2017 or early 2018 – which was the original deadline for the entire project to be completed. The final section is now not due to be completed until 2020 at the earliest.

Environmental protection

One of the biggest factors has been the environment. Studies revealed that the region was rich in rare animal and plant life. Notably, the highway runs through a jaguar protection area around Vellejo Mountain that requires particular care and attention. Mexico has strict regulations to minimize the impact of industrial work, so the engineering and construction companies involved have had to be sure to preserve the environment and not destroy complicated ecosystems along the route. These issues have delayed all three sections, but particularly the final stretch toward Puerto Vallarta, which was still in the planning process through 2017.

Another factor is the region’s topography. It’s a vast mountainous area that requires the construction of tunnels and viaducts, as well as the overpasses and underpasses required at junctions. Building access roads is an additional challenge in such uncompromising terrain.

As an example, two sections of highway comprising 11 miles (18km) were built by civil engineering firm Acciona. The first 4.3-mile (7km) section required the construction of four viaducts, while the second 6.7-mile (11km) section required one viaduct, five underpasses and one overpass. On top of that, the company stresses that it worked hard to reduce the impact of its activities in these areas by employing a range of environmental measures, including the protection and relocation of species of wild flora and fauna, as per the country’s regulations and the highway’s planning restrictions.

Add in the fact that there have been funding cutbacks at the STC and it becomes clear why a project that got underway in December 2011 was initially progressing at a rate of around 3 miles (5km) per year, according to a report by Mexican newspaper Reforma.

The road ahead

Now, however, the highway is starting to take shape. The contract for the second stretch was awarded to construction company The Ideal Group in May 2016. This section, which is intended to cut congestion on the existing Federal Highway 200, aims to separate long-haul and local traffic and has been divided into five sections that correlate with the main towns along the route. Including the start and finish points for this stretch, that also entails building seven junctions, six of which are complicated by more uneven terrain along the route, and over 4 miles (7km) of access roads.

Mountains feature along this stretch of highway as well, requiring the construction of 45 civil structures, 366 drainage areas on the highway itself, and 46 further drainage areas on the access roads. This is the stretch that is scheduled to open in late 2017, or early 2018, but at the time of going to press it still remains to be seen whether the engineers can hit this target.

The most complicated aspect of the highway’s construction is the challenge posed by the three tunnels that are required along the route. The shortest is 528ft (161m), the next one up is 1,115ft (340m), and the biggest of the three is a daunting 3,700ft (1.1km) long. This complexity was highlighted when the project was hit by more delays in July, when the first section of highway to be completed had to be closed for 30 days after heavy rain caused several landslides that blocked both sides of the road around the tunnel near Compostela and beyond. This required the STC to reduce the severity of the slopes in the surrounding area to “avoid and correct slips and landslides”, while diverting motorists onto alternative routes – namely the local highways that continued to operate unaffected. And it’s not as if the authorities hadn’t taken local weather conditions into account, as major drainage works to remove stormwater were undertaken before the construction of the first section began.

In all, it hasn’t been a straightforward project for either the STC or the construction companies involved. Yet the reduction in journey times, coupled with the attempts to minimize environmental disruption, mean the effort should be worth it in the long run

This article was originally published in the Intertraffic World magazine

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