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Tunnels key to Colombia's Mountain Highway Nov 2011
Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk
South America, and especially Brazil, is well known for its rapidly expanding infrastructure, but Colombia also presents a market of the future. A commissioned report into the so-called Mountain Highway has just reported back and contains within its US$8.6 billion scope 131 tunnels totalling 90km in length. TunnelTalk reporter Peter Kenyon investigates.

Challenging terrain in the Andes

There can be little doubt that geographical difficulties alone make implementation of an ambitious 50-year infrastructure vision by President Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia a bold undertaking.
Colombia is a country split by the Andes, with a landscape that features dense forests, thick jungle and deep gorges. It is a country sitting in both an active volcano and an earthquake zone, with its coastal lowlands prone to the sort of flooding that last year caused damage estimated at US$6 billion. In the words of Esteban Piedrahita, former director of Colombia's National Planning Department: "It is as broken a country as they come."
Against this backdrop President Santos has embarked on a US$27 billion programme of works in a country where until just six years ago only 15% of roads were paved. With 70% of cargo transported by truck it is easy to see why transportation and infrastructure is one of the administration's top five priorities.
Chief among the mega-projects, and one that should be catching the attention of international designers and tunnelling contractors, is the Autopistas de la Montaña, the Mountain Highway.

Medellin is central to the Mountain Highway

In 2010 the Government's National Institute of Concessions (INCO) appointed state power company ISA, now the country's biggest infrastructure player, to carry out a full report on the scope of the Mountain Highway: a four-pronged north, south, east, and west road project with the Andean mountain city of Medellin at its heart. Combined with other projects it will form the lynchpin of a new and improved roadway network that seeks to improve internal trade links. The report, commissioned at a cost of US$20 million, was carried out by two consultancies, one Spanish and one Columbian.
Working to a 2008 geometric design set by the Instituto Nacional de la Vias (Department of Transportation), which stipulates that road projects should incorporate a maximum 6% gradient, a 10.5m average width, and allow for speeds of 80km/h, ISA's team of consultants has just delivered its findings and its recommendations.
The report highlighted 760km of roadways that includes improvements and new-builds, and splits the project into four separate sections radiating from Medellin, Colombia's second city with a population of nearly three million.
To deliver the project in its entirety, the consultants concluded that 15 tunnels of more than 1km in length would be required (a total of about 52km), plus a further 116 smaller tunnels of under 1km for an additional total of about 37km. The plan includes a further 703 bridges.
ISA said in a statement: "In a detailed presentation, attended by the Deputy Minister of Transport as well as INCO's Director, the Governor of Antioquia, representatives of National Transport Department (INVIAS), the Government of Antioquia, and the Municipality of Medellín, ISA and its consultants showed the results of the technical and financial structuring studies that illustrate a broad and thorough analysis on various topics and enabled us to become properly aware of the project's dimension.
"The presentation addressed a configuration of the road system under study, in response to the country's current competitiveness needs, geographical and geological complexity of the project area, and the dynamics of current and future transportation. The designs and structuring contained in the studies were conducted in an integral and modular basis, so that the project configuration recommended could be developed gradually to complete its final phase.

Entrance portal to the La Linea tunnel

"From this perspective, the studies provide a large-scale solution and consider a total investment that could amount to COP 15.56 trillion ($8.6 billion) for the development of the project in its full extent, which would include the Troncal a Urabá (section 1) on single carriageway, the North-South corridor (sections 2 and 4) on dual carriageway and the road to Puerto Berrio (section 3) on a new single carriageway that would operate as a road pair with the existing route."
So where now? One of the problems, as always, is money. The national Government will provide some of the funding, but most is due to be provided by the private Colombian company ISA, which will manage and own the project under a concession agreement with INCO, the National Institute of Concessions.
Regional governments, as well as the city of Medellin, will be expected to pay their share, but although they have agreed in principle, they want a proportional share of the toll revenues that will be generated. That said, tolls will not be enough to cover the cost over the expected 40-year life of the project since traffic forecasts are not considered heavy by international standards. The belief is that the Mountain Highway, as an individual entity, makes more strategic sense than it does commercial.
Meanwhile, Cardona Germain, the country's Minister for Transportation, has pledged that the project will become a reality, declaring it "important for Colombia". The regional government in Antioquia, where most of the highway will be built, has pledged financial support but wants assurances from the national government that the network will be considered part of the national highway grid. The region believes it has been short-changed by politicians in Bogota for decades, but the overall mood is in support of a project that could transform its economic fortunes.
Foreign investment will almost certainly be needed to bridge the gap. Only last week ISA's Chief Executive Fernando Alarcon said as much. But investing in Colombia is not perhaps as risky as it once was. The World Bank, in its report Doing Business in a More Transparent World, rates Colombia a creditable 39th out of 183 in terms of "'Best Countries for Doing Business'" and an impressive 5th when it comes to "'protecting investors'".
A trade agreement has already been ratified with Canada and others are pending with both the USA and the European Union. With a political will behind infrastructure improvements, and with the state raising large sums of money by selling off parts of the nationalised oil company Ecopetrol, there is more than enough reason to believe that the Mountain Highway will become a reality.
And in the aftermath of the farcical bidding process for the unidirectional La Linea Tunnel, which at 8.8km will be the continent's longest highway tunnel when it is eventually completed in 2014, it is to be hoped that valuable lessons have been learned.

A pilot tunnel for the La Linea tunnel was completed in 2009

Three rounds of bidding since 2001 for the La Linea project have had to be scrapped, partly due to highly restrictive rules imposed on foreign contractors, and partly as a result of a necessary redesign after a pilot bore revealed more challenging ground conditions than had been anticipated. In the wake of all this, Colombia's Procurement and Contracting Law 80 was revised so as to encourage, rather than discourage, foreign companies.
It was only in 2009 that the US$329 million contract was finally awarded to a JV comprising Spanish, Colombian and Mexican companies, after the rules were changed to allow unlimited foreign shares in a consortium, where previously it was restricted to 45%. The change of policy also allows for bidding by 100% foreign, as well as single company foreign bids.
Just two weeks ago, Colombia's Transport Ministry announced that the contract for a second La Linea tunnel will be put out to tender before the end of this year (2011). The contract is one of several that, together, will be worth US$2.41 billion.
Developments in Columbia add to interesting times for the South American continent.

           

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