Development Business / March 16, 1997
By Larry Luxner
COLONIA, 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 42 kilometers across an estuary separating the two countries. Proponents say the bridge -- projected to cost at least $1 billion -- would dramatically reduce trucking time between Buenos Aires and São Paulo, Brazil, strengthen Uruguay's economic position within the Mercosur trade bloc and make South America's best-preserved colonial city far more accessible to tourists than it ever has been.
Yet opponents say the bridge would destroy Colonia's charm forever.
"Buenos Aires is a big city, and we're afraid of losing our identity," says Ithella Sosa Vignolo, a social worker employed by the city's tourism department. "Delinquency will rise, drugs will get worse and we'll lose more than we'll gain."
Col. Artigas Miranda Dutra, who heads Colonia's historic commission, disagrees. "Many people think they'll lose tranquility, but with progress, this is always the case," he said, adding that "the opinion of a small town like Colonia cannot influence the interests of three countries."
At least nine international consortia have shown interest in building the bridge. The Montevideo-based binational commission in charge of the massive undertaking says the consortia involve 17 construction firms, including Brazil's Odebrecht, Japan's Mitsubishi, Argentina's Techint, Great Britain's Trafalgar House, Italy's Impregilo and San Francisco-based Bechtel.
Nikhil Bhandari, a transportation planner with Louis Berger International Inc. in Washington, told Development Business that pre-qualification is now in progress, with a "data room" to open in May, and a tender for the 35-year concession to be issued by November. Actual construction could begin by June 1998, with the work to be completed as early as 2003.
After lengthy debate, the route for the puente has been chosen; its Argentine terminus will be at Punta Lara, 50 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, while the bridge will make landfall in Uruguay, just east of Colonia.
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 explorer Manuel Lobo, has one of the Western Hemisphere's best-preserved examples of colonial architec-ture. 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. One reason tourists love Colonia is the city's absolute charm. Its quiet streets are lined with Buicks, Cords and other relics of Uruguay's prosperous past, while shopkeepers hawk everything from leather coats and colorful woolen sweaters to ceramics and yerba-mate gourds. Another reason are the prices: Uruguay is a much better tourist bargain than either Argentina or Brazil, whose currencies are now on par with the dollar, making them as just as expensive as France or Italy.
What really attracts visitors, though, are the buildings. Colonia has dozens of historic structures -- from the Museo Portugues, an 18th-century house with a tiled roof fronting the Plaza Mayor, to the nearby ruins of Convento de San Francisco, dating from 1683 and the city's oldest structure. In summer, groups of Argentine, Brazilian and occasionally American tourists trample through the town, snapping up bargains, shooting videos and enjoying the serenity that frenetic Buenos Aires can never offer.
No one disputes that a six-lane bridge would bring even more tourists to Colonia, giving a shot in the arm to the stagnant local economy. Recently, Jeanne Labrousse, French director of the firm Eurotunnel, met with Colonia Mayor Carlos Moreira and assured local business and civic leaders that the bridge "would be very good for Uruguay and for all Latin America."
Under a plan proposed by Louis Berger International, Bear Stearns & Co. and Latham & Watkins, the bridge will be bid as a concession with private risk capital, with the winning bidder responsible for the design, construction, operation and eventual transfer of the bridge to the two nations. These same consultants also recommend that the bilateral commission consider the inclusion of complementary projects related to travelers' services, such as gas stations, duty-free shops, hotels and restaurants. The cost of the bridge would be offset by hefty tolls paid by truckers and others. Current projections call for 5,500 vehicles to use the bridge daily, based on an anticipated toll of $60 to $80 each.
At present, most tourists make the trip by ferry. Several companies, including Ferrylineas and Buquebus, ply the 45-minute route between Buenos Aires and Colonia, and are not happy about the competition a bridge would bring. For his part, Uruguayan President Julio María Sanguinetti recently described the puente as "a fundamental link within a broader concept of the integration process" between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- the four nations that make up the Southern Common Market, or Mercosur.
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 José Serrato, Uruguayan representative to the binational commission set up to study the bridge, 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."
"I'm afraid of the puente," sighs 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. But if it's good for the country, let's begin building it today."