JPEG - 19.9 kb

Venezuela’s Minister of Infrastructure, Ramón Carrizales, made the decision to close the artery today, following several months’ efforts to strengthen and readjust one of the freeway’s crucial valley bridges. However, with heavy rains falling most of yesterday, the mountainside that has been slipping by a few centimeters per day, causing one of the valley bridges to buckle in the middle, slipped a full 25 centimeters in one day. The columns holding up the bridge have now become severely displaced and the bridge could collapse at any time. Slums below the bridge also had to begin evacuation today.

According to Minister Carrizales, the damage to the bridge is, “considerable in all of its structure and in the course of the day new fissures have appeared.”

While there had been speculation that the bridge might be reopened again next week, Carrizales said, “I believe the probability that the closure is definitive is increasing.” Vice-President José Vicente Rangel, who visited the bridge today, called the situation a “national emergency,” adding, “this means that all [government] resources will be placed at its service.”

For weeks, government officials had warned that the bridge and the freeway might have to be closed soon. Fifty thousand vehicles cross the bridge every day, which connects Caracas to the country’s main international passenger and cargo airport and to its second-most important port of La Guaira. Closing the route means that tourists, cargo, and commuters will have to take alternate routes, the shortest of which takes two hours and winds over the mountains in a two-lane road, through some of Venezuela’s most crime-ridden slums.

Other routes take as long as three to four hours to reach the airport from Caracas. Previously, the 17 kilometer trip between the airport and the city took between 30 and 60 minutes.

The freeway is also practically the only efficient route that connects the coastal Vargas state to the rest of the country. Vargas is entirely surrounded by a mountain range, whose slopes are in constant danger of landslides after heavy rains. In December 1999, continuous rains caused massive landslides, killing between 10,000 and 15,000 people in Vargas state and leaving over 150,000 homeless.

Engineers say that the collapsing bridge, or Viaduct No. 1, as it is known in Venezuela, cannot be saved. Instead, the Chavez government is building a new temporary viaduct, which will be completed in February 2006 and a permanent replacement, which will be completed in 2007.

Meanwhile, the government is repairing the alternate routes and is placing National Guard troops along the road, in order to assure travelers’ safety. The International Caracas Maiquetia airport will not be closed in the near future, but authorities have said that plans are being considered in which flights would be routed to Valencia, the closest major city with an international airport. Travel from Valencia to Caracas would take about two and a half hours.

For the slums or barrios below the collapsing viaduct, the government is offering to re-locate 200 families that live in the immediate danger zone and is planning to re-locate hundreds more in the near future. The relocated families are to receive new free public housing in the Caracas area. Housing Minister Luis Figueroa spoke directly to the affected community, saying that the evacuation had to begin immediately.