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Uruguay: The 30-mile bridge of no return
The Miami Herald / July 6, 1995

By Larry Luxner

COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, Uruguay -- For the past five years, one topic of conversation has dominated all others in this historic port city of 23,000: a proposed bridge that would link tiny Colonia to sprawling Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The puente, as it is known in Spanish, would be the longest of its kind in the world, spanning 30 miles across an estuary separating the twon countries. Proponents say the briege -- projected to cost between $700 million and $1 billion -- would dramatically reduce trucking time between Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, Brazil, create thousands of jobs for Colonia and, most importantly, strengthen Uruguay's position within Mercosur, a customs union linking the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Yet opponents say the bridge would destroy Colonia's charm forever. They warn that if Argentines are able to drive over from Buenos Aires in half an hour, Colonia will quickly become a bedroom suburb of the giant city, losing its identity and security in the process.

"I'm afraid of the puente," says Sergio Vega, owner of Pulperia Los Faroles, a seafood restaurant in the heart of the historic zone. "I don't want to see bars on the windows. For Colonia, a yachting marina would be much better."

Fernando Balbucha, a sidewalk vendor who sells yerba-mate bombillas and other souvenirs across from the aptly named Cafe Mercosur, puts it in perspective: "There are some people who want the puente,and some who don't. As a businessman, I want it."

So does Col. Artigas Miranda Dutra, who heads Colonia's historic commission.

"Many people think they'll lose tranquility, but with progress, this is always the case," said Miranda. "The opinion of a small town like Colonia cannot influence the interests of three countries."

Roberto Grandich, a local shoe-store owner, says that besides creating a source of income, the bridge's construction alone would employ 4,000 people -- 2,000 in Uruguay and 2,000 in Argentina.

"It will open a market of 16 million people to us," he predicts. "Colonia would triple or quadruple in size. The city's character wouldn't change, because it would grow away from the river. Commerce between Argentina and Brazil would also improve."

Today, fewer than 1,000 people live in Colonia's historic zone, a veritable time capsule of 300-year-old cobblestone streets, 1940s vintage automobiles and antique furniture shops. Yet the town, which was founded in 1680 by Portuguese settlers from Brazil, boasts one of South America's best-preserved examples of colonial architecture. Thanks to its imposing churches, unusual museums and reconstructed city walls, Colonia's Barrio Historico may soon win recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the meantime, Colonia already lures some 600,000 tourists a year -- 90% of them Argentines who come over on the 45-minute hydrofoil from Buenos Aires. No one disputes that a six-lane bridge would bring even more tourists to the town, giving a shot in the arm to the stagnant local economy.

Several major European conglomerates, including an Italian firm that worked on Paraguay's Itaipu Dam, have expressed interest in the bridge. A joint Argentine-Uruguayan government commission was established several years ago to study the puente, whose cost would be offset by hefty tolls paid by truckers and others.

That commission, headed on the Uruguayan side by engineer Jose Serrato, has now finished the first phase of an economic feasibility study. The next step is to issue pre-qualification bids for the bridge's construction, though the project itself must be approved by the legislatures of both countries.

At the moment, five different routes are being considered. In all likelihood, the bridge's Uruguayan terminus will either be at Riachuelo, eight miles north of Colonia, or at Carmelo, 40 miles to the north.

Last month, Jeanne Labrousse, French director of the firm Eurotunnel, met with Colonia's mayor, Carlos Moreira, and assured local business and civic leaders that the bridge "would be very good for Uruguay and for all Latin America."

Nevertheless, a recent poll conducted by the weekly newspaper El Sol found that 47% of Colonia residents surveyed were against the bridge, 29% in favor and 24% not sure. Even Serrato conceded that "a project of this kind can be very profitable and at the same time could be a disaster without the necessary environmental protection."

Businessman Grandich said the bridge will be built even if Colonia's residents continue to oppose it. If that in fact happens, some people here say they'll simply pack up and leave.

"The day the puente is built," said one tour guide who asked not to be named, "I'll move to the other side of the country."

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