Roatan is Getting a Well-Earned Makeover and Setting Up for a Wave of Economic Growth
The entire cost of these projects is over 16 billion lempiras, or over 650 million dollars. All that in a country with 2017 estimated budget of $4.6 billion revenue, a debt of $9.4 billion and running a13% yearly deficit. Still barely a fraction of these infrastructure funds ended up on the island of Roatan.
The money awarded for the paving in Honduras’ municipalities must go through a frustrating process of educating, lobbying, and convincing the constantly rotating cadre of Tegucigalpa bureaucrats. “Every time it’s a different person.Two months later they send a different person and it’s the same thing, the same process,” says Ing. Gustavo Isnardi, project manager at Bay Islands Development Company [BIDCC], about the ungrateful task of asking the central government to spend money on the island that is perceived as better off than mainland Honduras.
Compared to other Honduran Departments Roatan is a small fish. Yet the Bay Islands and Roatan punch well above its weight category bringing in tax revenue for the Tegucigalpa’s coffers. “The money that they throw here is nothing. It’s not even what we deserve,” says Ing. Isnardi, about the government infrastructure project.
The mainland taxes collected on the island pay for the central government contribution to the island: by the small public-school system, semi-competent police force, neglected public hospital and roads. Very often the impression that government officials base their decisions on for funding the road works on Roatan, is from their brief visits as tourists to West Bay, or from brochures. “They come here, they get into their nice Prados and they don’t get to see the bad areas,” remembers Ing. Isnardi.
Roatan’s geography has been a challenge for road builders since 1970s. The island’s meandering coastline and ridges had been a challenging place to build paved roads in the 1980s without the heavy equipment available today. The Plan Grande to Camp Bay roads have been a construction project that has built a road on top of the ridge dividing the south and north side of the islands. While this was the cheapest, easiest way to go, this solution proved many challenges for a long narrow island like Roatan.
This simplest way locating roads, has proven a challenge to developers attempting to access beachfront condos in West Bay, Parrot Tree and the defunct Oceano project. The costly construction of steep roads has been a detriment to developers and a hazard to drivers. Properties that lie next to each other are often accessed only by driving back to the main road and back again onto another road.
This is particularly the case between West Bay and West End, but also in Sandy Bay and the main road heading east from the Santos Guardiola border. The better alternative is to develop a road along the island’s coast, maybe 100-200 meters from shore. This was the case in Sandy Bay, and also between Coxen Hole and French Cay and to an extent in Flower’s Bay.
The new wave of road construction on Roatan was initiated after 2017 elections in Tegucigalpa and in the Roatan Municipality. While roads on the Honduras mainland have been steadily improving for the last several years, by the rainy season of 2017 the conditions of the main roads on Roatan became abysmal.
The latest 2018-2019 road repairs and road construction have changed how Roatanians move around the island and how visitors perceive the island. The money for these paving projects came from several sources.
INVEST-H funded a. 60 million Lempira project for patching roads from West Bay to Oak Ridge. They also funded exploration of a road connecting Plan Grande, curving by Pristine Bay and resurfacing by Crawfish Rock and continuing to Palmetto Bay to connect with the northern road that has already been made. When that is completed one could stay on a paved road from Plan Grande all the way to West End.
When Mayor Jerry Hynds took over the Municipality in January 2018, things began to happen. The prior Roatan Mayor Dorn Ebanks oversaw practically no municipal road construction in his 2014-2017 terms. In the spring of 2018, Roatan is burdened with roughly $700,000 debt from prior administration .The Central Government was coerced to pave as well.
First a stretch of road between Pensacola and Flowers Bay received a 2.5-kilometer white top paving. This was followed by a 2.2-kilometer concrete paving from Flowers Bay to the West Bay road intersection. Finally, a 4.5-kilometer construction from West End to West Bay. That paving job was done in a record two-and-a-half-month period. “This was the most complicated job I was ever involved in,” says Ing. Gustavo Isnardi Jr., who oversaw the road’s construction, with San Pedro Sula PRODECON. The road to West Bay was opened just before the Holy Week tourist rush of 2019.
While the average concrete thickness was six inches, with the oscillating worn out road some sections ended up being eight or nine inches thick. The older roads were 6.5 meters wide while the newly built northern road was seven meters wide.
The concrete used for white topping the new roads has 4,500 psi strength and cut into 1.25 meter sections. The rebar was placed at the middle joint. The concrete is then cut into sections 1.25 meters apart. “That distributes the weight of the vehicles more evenly,” says Ing. Isnardi. “This concrete is made for any type of traffic.”
The white topping of the existing roads caused traffic delays during the day. Paving at night was not feasible according to Ing. Isnardi. “Everything about paving at night is more difficult. Except the traffic,” says Ing. Isnardi. Paving at night would require paying the workers additional 25% premium. It would also require lighting, danger of drunk drivers running into workers or skidding into newly poured concrete. Still Ing. Isnardi’s men did work at night: on occasion they would begin working at 3am and would finish at 7 or 8pm, well after sunset.
According to Ing. Isnardi the government used to delay payment to contractors for one or two years. “You basically have to fund the project. You have to finance the project and you get into debt with the bank…,” said Ing. Isnardi. “It’s gotten better. It’s maybe three-four months now.”
The road building on Roatan comes in spurts.
Roatan’s main thoroughfare, the PO-35 is the national road. Few people know about the road’s status let alone numbering. The national road that was repaired from local taxes set a precedent. While many roads are declared national and their paving is the responsibility of the central government, it is the Roatan municipality with its roughly $12 million annual budget that picked up the bill for paving and repaving the national roads.
The central government takes out in taxes much more then it puts back into the island department. So, for the last several years Roatan found itself in a conundrum: to pave or to wait, to lobby the central government. While some contemplate the complexity of what to do, others see acting as the right answer. “If you wait for central government you could be waiting for ever,” says Edward Ake, owner of Island Concrete. The bitter pill is that Roatan taxpayers are spending their locally raised taxes subsidizing the central government because Bay Islands politicians are unable or unwilling to lobby the central government to pave the government roads.
Currently Bay Islands, and Gracias a Dios are the only two of 18 Honduran Departments that have only one congress representative in Honduran National Assembly. “We are only one congressman and he is the wrong color,” says Ake.
The Bay Islands, despite its growing population that has likely surpassed 100,000 people, is still estimated at 40,000 according to 2010 census. According to the Honduran Embassy, the Bay Islands are the least populated department in the country with only 49,158 people. “We have at least one hundred thousand people on the island,” says Ing. Isnardi. With that many people living in the department, Bay islands are eligible for a second seat in Congress and twice as much lobbying power as they have now.
Roatan Municipality has been relieving the central government from doing its responsibility – they pave roads to keep up with growth and investment on the island. The locally funded paving projects have improved the island’s resilience and made it independent form the central governments whims and tribulations. “The seed for growth of the island is infrastructure,” said Ake. “If you improve the infrastructure you improve the economy, you improve the standard of living, improve education, and improve the crime.”
On the eastern edge of the Roatan Municipality a L. 32 million, Municipal bid for the white top paving of the of 5.6 kilometers from Santos Guardiola Municipal border to French Harbor was awarded to Island Concrete. The work took place between August 2018 and January 2019 with the company placing, 6 inches concrete topping on top of the weathered, damaged and often destroyed main road.
Due to angulation of the road and dips that were filled with concrete, the concrete often reached eight and nine inches in depth. According to Island Concrete 6,731 cubic meters of concrete were used in the project. While the weather cooperated, there were delays and other issues. “The biggest challenge was traffic control,” said Edward Ake, about the job. “People were extremely patient and extremely helpful.”
Island Concrete got into Civil Construction in the early 2000s with several road paving projects. They paved the road in Coxen Hole, French Harbour and in French Cay. Jerry Hynds was in his second term as Mayor and dove into improving the infrastructure of his municipality, focusing on bridges and roads. “[Mayor] Jerry [Hynds] asked us to design us a road for 20 years, and you can see it’s going to outperform that,” said Edward Ake, owner of Island Concrete, about the paving in Coxen Hole.
plant and building roads by happenstance. Ake came to Roatan on a diving adventure in 1994. Back in England he was a research analyst for Merchant Bank and island life made him make a career U turn.
When in late 1990s a expat put up for sale a concrete mixing plant, two trucks and attractor, Ake found himself catapulted into the concrete business. The Englishman dove into educating himself in the concrete mixing technique through research, books and seminars. “You couldn’t do that in the First World. You could not be a non-specialist and grow with it,” says Ake who has a BA degree in Business from Coventry University.
In 1990s Roatan was very much a place where an idea and some resources could give you not only a job, but often a monopoly. “There was a limited knowledge here on the island,” said Ake. “By learning the necessary amount, you could already lead the market.” Said Ake.
Twenty-two years later Island Concrete is a firm doing engineering, design, general contracting and selling concrete to many projects around the island. In fact, Island Concrete has become a major player in constructing the island’s road infrastructure. The company has focused on projects on Roatan, but on occasion has ventured outside the island for projects. Island Concrete has also built a cruise ship terminal in Trujillo and concrete docks in Guanaja and on Santa Helena.
Arguably the biggest change in recent island road infrastructure was cutting and paving the northern road. The 8.8-kilometer road relieved traffic between French Harbour and Sandy Bay and opened opportunities for investors. Ing. Luis Alvarado paved a 8.8 kilometer stretch of road between Blue Harbour Plantation and Palmetto Bay Plantation and across to Dixon Cove.
The road included a 640meters extension heading to Palmetto Bay Plantation, the cost of paving was of Lps. 49.5 Million and the entire project cost with earth moving and materials was Lps. 120 million, or $4.9 million. “The biggest challenge was doing the earthworks and stabilization of the swampy areas like Mudhole and Corozal, and installing all the storm water piping because all of the little creeks,” says Ing. Alvarado, who has 24 years building roads and infrastructure projects all over Honduras, Argentina and Germany.
The new paved northern road doesn’t always follow the dirt road that connected Sandy Bay and Corozal for the last few decades. The Roatan Municipality with Dale Jackson heading the effort made the road much straighter and wider. “Because of relationships he was able to negotiate with the landowners, I’ll take a bit here and give a bit here,” says Ake. “It’s built like a road should be built.”
Ake has nothing but compliments about the northern road. “They have done a remarkable job cutting it. Its first class,” says Ake about the northern road. “He made a road as a road should look. He didn’t just work with what he had.”
The north road not only made small, forgotten communities more accessible, but has lessened congestion and shortened a commute between Sandy Bay and French Harbour by 20 minutes. “It has opened up quicker access to the north coast side, Corozal, Hottest Sparrow, Palmetto, places that a lot of people would never even have considered purchasing real estate prior,” said Marci Weisman, an American realtor who has lived on the island since 1999. “We have only seen the tip of the growth, growing more in the near future for Roatan.”
Building a road on such a beautifully, visited by tourist island, is not just about cutting and paving. The road should be cost effective, environmentally friendly, and fit in with island esthetics. A major element in environmental road construction is balancing the cut and fill used. Whatever is cut should be used on the same project. That has not always been the case.
For the last several years Roatan found itself in a conundrum.
Honduras’ 298 municipalities receive funds to improve the existing road system. In 2019 The 24 million Pls. project was funded by the Honduras government from annual car registration fees. Ing. Alex Licona, from Tegucigalpa oversaw the projects that improved the road from the Megaplaza mall to Crawfish Rock, stabilized the New Port Royal road of 2.4 km, and Pandy Town’s road of 1.85 km was improved as well. According to Ing. Licona the grading project has also brought improvement to the drainage of the roads with 140 meters of pipe being laid underneath the existing roads.
Another project was the road patching and stabilization done from West Bay to Oak Ridge. The potholes were stabilized and filled in with asphalt. And a sealer with 3/8” gravel was placed on top to extend the life of the asphalt road. The more than 50 kilometers project cost 60 million Lps. and was paid by INVESTH, funded by Honduras’ Fondo Vial and paid from car registrations.
INSEPH in Tegucigalpa bid out a 600 meter stretch of the road, white topping from French Harbour to the Megaplaza Mall. Cordon’s Heavy Equipment from El Progreso won that bid. The company also won the bid from the Roatan Municipality for the construction of a three-lane road from Santa Maria to the Airport. Centrally located community of Dixon Cove is likely to become a hub for the island with the Galaxy ferry terminal, Mahogany Bay cruise ship terminal, a new hospital and a new municipal building just within500-meter radius.
Cordon’s Heavy Equipment has also won a concrete paving of 600 meters from Bojangles to ACE hardware store. In mid-November they moved their equipment to a base in Dixon Cove and are set to begin construction just as rainy season has begun. Crawfish Rock and Spanish Town road are also part of the bid preparation.
Over the last 10 years the island has been switching its original asphalt road system to concrete. “It’s a higher initial investment, but it’s less maintenance, better quality,” says Ake. “It’s greener. You don’t have the oils from the asphalt leaching.” The lower maintenance cost in maintaining concrete roads in key for the island municipalities.
While it is the central government that is responsible for the road building and the maintenance of the road surface, it is the local municipal authorities that are responsible to keep the culverts free from debris and trim the vegetation around the road. “The problem is its left individually up to the mayor to determine what gets done. And some mayors are very good about it and some mayors have not been,” says Ake. “There should be a process. Not just the mayor determining now there it is close to winter we should start cleaning. The engineering department should have it in the budget.”
‘Programa de mantenimiento’ is a system of local government maintaining a national government infrastructure like roads, and bridges. It is the local municipalities that are responsible for cleaning the road culverts, cleaning the gutters, trimming the vegetation and maintaining the roads free of debris.
The paving of the north coast road has been a huge improvement not just to the area but to the whole entire island.
Now that West End of Roatan has been practically crisscrossed by pavement and subdivided into developments, the island’s eastern half remains wide open.
Paving from Punta Gorda to Camp Bay, a stretch of around 8 kilometers has been on the horizon for over a decade. New strides have been made; making this project happen in preparation for the future construction of the paved main road east of Punta Gorda has already been made. The idea is to connect via concrete pavement the little developed communities of Camp Bay, Port Royal, Calabash Bight to Oak Ridge Road. “Maybe in a year this would be a bid,” says Ing. Isnardi. An economic growth spur for the entire island is on the horizon.