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The main highway between Venezuelan capital Caracas and the country's principal airport and seaport has been closed because of serious damage to one of the three bridges on the road, local press reported.
The Caracas-La Guaira highway leads to both Maiquetía international airport and La Guaira port in Vargas state, but viaduct 1 on the road is now unusable because of damage resulting from landslides caused by heavy rains.
In President Hugo Chávez's Sunday radio broadcast to the nation, he announced that a 2km alternative route around the bridge will be ready by end-February and works are set to begin on a new highway.
Although authorities are to carry out a detailed survey of the bridge to see if it can be repaired, Chávez acknowledged that the structure cannot be saved.
Works to build the new bridge will take over a year and will cost 163bn bolívares (US$75.9mn), according to declarations by infrastructure minister Ramón Carrizález. Drilling has already begun for the supports of the new structure, he said.
The project to construct the new highway north of the capital is also ready. This road will cost 2.2bn bolívares and will take around four years to conclude. In the meantime, traffic will have to use the old Caracas-La Guaira highway, and the newer road with the diversion around the collapsing bridge.
Critics have pointed out that the authorities knew that the bridge had been close to the end of its lifespan for many years and had failed to act in time to maintain connections with Vargas state to the north of the capital.
The first cracks in the base of the bridge were discovered in 1993 and works to save the structure should have begun then, said Enzo Betancourt, president of the Venezuelan college of engineers (CIV).
"We [the CIV] made the corresponding warnings and suggestions in the case of the viaduct, the problems that the road presents and the possible solutions," the engineer was quoted as saying by newspaper Nueva Prensa.
"A year and a half ago we recommended that the national government implement alternative routes, and widen and improve the old Caracas-La Guaira road," added the official.