This post is also available in: Spanish
by Craig Weincek
Most residents of Panama will remember the year 2013 as one of transition. During the past year, many projects were started and even more continued with few of any being completed. With the exception of the Canal Expansion, whose completion date has been pushed back to 2015, this upcoming year of 2014 should be remembered as the year of ribbon cuttings and new beginnings.
A mammoth undertaking, the expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate the new massive supertankers and gigantic container ships now plying the seas by adding two new much wider post-panamax locks, one on each end, has fallen behind schedule. In addition to engineering challenges, labor disputes, cost overruns and a reluctance of the contractor to continue have been obstacles to completion. A new observation platform did open this year on the Colon end, so those interested can watch the slow-going but vast project take shape.
At the Metro
The first and only metro system in Central America was originally scheduled to begin operation at the end of 2013. Certainly most motorists, who have experienced extra traffic snarls throughout the city, are looking forward to the end of construction, that is now anticipated for the first half 2014. With many of the subway cars delivered and a
test run already attended by the President, who sees this system as his legacy project, chances seem good that at least Line One, that runs between Albrook and Los Andes, will be available to passengers soon, just not by the end of the year. Eventually several lines will be completed in an effort to alleviate some of the traffic congestion that plagues the city. It is estimated that 1.5 million people will end up using the Metro that comes with a $1.8 billion price tag.
The Brazilian conglomerate, Odebrecht, is part of the consortium responsible for the construction of the Metro. Since the company is also involved in the construction of the Cinta Costera III; the renovation of the streets of Casco Viejo, a major housing project in Curundú as well as the ongoing expansion of Tocumen Airport, it could be said that 2013 was a very good year for Norberto Odebrecht.
Cinta Costera III and the world Heritage issue
The most controversial of the Odebrecht projects is the marine viaduct highway known as Cinta Costera III that links Balboa Avenue with the Avenue of the Poets. Besides questions of poor traffic engineering that will cause bottlenecks at least by the Fish Market, there were major concerns that the bypass, which destroyed one of the most beautiful sea views in the world, would cause Casco Antiquo to lose its designation as a World Heritage site.
For most of 2012 and ’13, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had placed Casco Viejo on its endangered list and officials had threatened it would lose its identity as a World Heritage Site completely if the intrusive road that encircles the entire peninsula was completed. Then in a move that caught civic groups, who had called the viaduct ill advised, high-handed and shortsighted, and with the help of strong support from the Brazilian delegation, Casco Antiquo was taken off the endangered list and its status as a World Heritage Site reconfirmed. The road itself, which was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013, is now nearly 80% complete and due to have traffic running along the horizon by mid 2014.
Meanwhile Odebrecht spent most of 2013 renovating the streets of Casco Antiquo by digging up and replacing most of the water and sewer pipes as well as the electrical wires. The paving stones that give the old town some of its colonial charm were also replaced. This work obviously required that individual streets be closed during the repairs. Large metal barriers were set up that squeezed pedestrians into narrow spaces as the sidewalks and curbs where also smoothed out and reconstituted. Due to be completed before the end of 2013, work slowed down as paving bricks were put down, then taken back up as inadequate and replaced by, other hopefully better, bricks. Holes were excavated, filled in and then dug up again as traffic patterns became more confused and backups ensued.
The Infrastructure of the Old Quarter
While most residents and shop owners and restaurateurs who survived will be relieved when their streets are finally passable again, some doubt that the new 100-car garage that is under construction will do much to alleviate the ongoing parking problems. Many also worry that the traffic at the entrance to the old town near the Fish Market will become problematic with the intersection of the Cinta Costera III. Some critics also suggest that 2013 would have been an ideal time to install fiber optics thus bringing the historic area into the 21st century rather than leaving it a victim of a missed opportunity.
During all of 2013, motorists crossing the Bridge of the Americas or driving along the causeway or pedestrians strolling along the seawall in Casco Antiquo could watch the Museo de la Biodiversidad en Panama rise up along the waterfront as a scenic focal point. The colorful house of cards as designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry as his first Latin American project, will open its doors to the public by mid 2014. The Biomuseo as it is known will celebrate the unique characteristics of the isthmus and the diversity of the flora and fauna that inhabit it.
And 2014 is election year
The other major development in 2013 that will culminate in 2014 is the presidential campaign. After a constitutional crisis was averted when it was determined that the current president Ricardo Martinelli would not seek another five-year term, the Democratic Change Party (CD) nominated relative unknown José Domingo Arias as their candidate to succeed their leader. The two main opposing political parties the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the Panameñista Party also held primaries. The PRD, the largest party in the country, declared Juan Carlos Navarro, a former mayor of Panama City as their candidate, while the Panameñistas proclaimed the current vice president of the country Juan Carlos Varela as their candidate.
There were also three major candidates for mayor nominated this year with Roxana Mendaz (CD) the incumbent, who took over in 2012 when the previous mayor Bosco Vallarino was forced out for “health reasons,” as the early front-runner. Also nominated are José Luis Fabrega (PRD) and Panameñista Jose Blandon. Even though the elections won’t be held until June all the campaigns seem to be fully engaged with billboards already appearing along the highways.