The Isla Colon Road Renovation Project
A dream come true or environmental disaster? Progress in paradise? The end of Bocas del Toro’s natural appeal or the beginning of real prosperity for the island’s inhabitants? When it comes to Phase B of the Isla Colon road renovation project, it really depends on who you ask and only time will tell.
There are residents and environmental conservation organizations are concerned about the impacts of the development of this project, while at the same time there are local community leaders and island natives that are in favor of the whole project, viewing the new road as the key to progress on the island; “the light at the end of the tunnel” and “a longed-for dream come true for all true islanders” as it was described by presenters during the March 23, 2023 exhibition of the final design for the project.
Now the unifying news is that no matter who you speak to, everyone seems to be pretty much on board for Phase A of the project -the renovation of the existing roads- which is programmed to initiate immediately.
On March 23, 2023, the island community of Bocas del Toro gathered in the Simon Bolivar park for a presentation by Panama’s Ministry of Public Works to learn about the final approved design for this massive road project, which the name, when translated from Spanish, is the following: “Consultancy for the Urban Design of the Isla Colon Streets, La Feria – Boca del Drago – Bluff Beach and Paunch Beach Coastal Bypass Road, Water Pump System and Renovation of Simon Bolivar Park, Province of Bocas del Toro.”
Below you can access all 22 slides from the presentation that was given by Ministry of Public Works lead engineer on the project, the national director of study and design, Ing. Rolando Lay. Click here for a for full video of the presentation with English subtitles.Scroll to the end to view all 21 presentation slides.
There are two stages to this project: Phase A and Phase B.
Phase A involves repairs and rehabilitations along 30km of all the current existing roads of Isla Colon. Part of this first phase is also adding sidewalks, a bicycle lane in Bocas Town, designating many streets as one way, renovating the Simon Bolivar park, creating an official public bus stop within the park (next to the government palace), a complete reconstruction to the town drainage system and the installation of pumps on the north and south sides of Bocas Town to remove water when it floods.
The road renovations of Phase A include repairing all of the existing paved roads, in Bocas Town, Big Creek, the Y, out to Paunch Beach (until where the pavement currently stops) and including the urgently needed repairs on the road to Boca del Drago.
Phase A has been approved by the Ministry of Environment and seems to be generally favored in the community, as far as we can see. Though some may disagree on some aspects of this phase, there is a consensus that Phase A is a worthy project, that the current roads are in desperate need of repair and that the community wants this project to break ground as soon as possible. Contracts for the $88 million project have been awarded for Phase A and it should start any day, according to the March 23 presentation. There is special urgency to start rehabilitating critical points on the road from Big Creek to Boca del Drago, which it was said in the presentation that this work is actually already underway.
Phase B is the more contentious part of the plan. This second stage involves paving a 17 km road along the beach, through stretches of practically untouched rainforest, river and swamps, including two protected areas: one Bocas’ main turtle nesting sites (Bluff) and one of Isla Colon’s only freshwater sources (Mimbitimbi). The pavement will start at the current dirt road in Paunch, with a concrete retaining sea wall; this to protect the road from the same swells that make the beach a world renowned surf destination. The newly paved road will continue to Bluff Beach, which is a protected turtle nesting beach, diverting inland to avoid the protected area. As part of this design, the road would continue all the way up the north coast of the island, through mostly completely undeveloped jungle, passing alongside natural gems such as La Piscina and Blue Lagoon, all the way to Mimbitimi, with a 65 meter suspension bridge over the Mimbitimbi River and connecting to the other existing paved road in Boca del Drago. Phase B is being called the “Boca del Drago-Bluff-Paunch Calle de Circunvalación” (a beltway, loop, or bypass road, in English).
Since its January 2021 announcement, concern regarding the effect on local fauna and ecosystems has been raised by Bocas residents and former and repeat visitors who continue to watch the island through the lens of The Bocas Breeze from afar. Then, when the 575 page environmental impact study was published in May of 2022, similar concerns were amplified after the professional review from the environmental nonprofit group CIAM Panama (Centro de Incidencia Ambiental). More on that later.
On March 15, 2023, the complete project and both phases were approved by Panama’s Ministry of Environment, as part of the Category 3 environmental impact study, conducted in accordance with the protocol of developing an infrastructural project like this.
According to the March 23 presentation, Phase B is not yet officially under contract. However Engineer Rolando Lay mentioned that at least one bid for the $50 million contract has been accepted and the details for an official agreement are currently being finalized.
Takeaways from the March 23, 2023 Presentation
Phase A seems to be universally favorable among Bocas del Toro residents. Now that the environmental impact study has been approved, work has been scheduled to start immediately on repairing the current roads. During our coverage in the last two years of this story, one of the most common comments we have received from readers is “How about fixing the current roads instead of building the new one?” Well, according to the March 23 community meeting and everything we have heard since the project was first announced in January of 2021, the current roads are the stated priority. It was mentioned after the presentation on March 23 that Phase A will start immediately and will take an estimated one year to complete. It is unclear at this time exactly when Phase B is scheduled to break ground or what the timeline for that stage of the project is.
Phase A, in addition to regular repairs of all the existing roads, includes the creation of a bike lane around Bocas Town and out to the beaches; a total of 37.25 km of bike lane around the island when Phase B is finished. This first stage also includes more sidewalks and reordering traffic to convert a majority of the narrow Bocas Town roads into one way streets. The area of the small street on the north side of the park, next to the government palace, will be converted into a public bus stop, for the colectivos that shuttle passengers to Boca del Drago and Bluff.
Another principal part of this first phase is the complete reconstruction of the city drainage systems, including water collection and pumps on the north and south sides of 6th street. Mentioned in the presentation was a plan to make many electric lines subterranean; this as it relates to the power lines in the Bocas Town center, Calles 1a, 2a and 3a. According to Engineer Rolando Lay, all of this activity in the town center during Phase A of the project is designed to increase pedestrian space in the downtown area.
Others would disagree on exactly how pedestrian-centric this new design is; especially those in favor of a concept proposed in Februrary of 2021, one that pays hommage Bocas Town’s pedestrian dominated historical roots, dating back to the urban population’s original boom during the “Epoca Dorada” golden age period of 1890-1930.
New One Way Streets in Bocas Town
Also scheduled for this first phase of the project is the rehabilitating of the road between Big Creek to Paunch Beach (the section until the pavement currently ends). One complication they have run into here is that as part of the project to connect electricity from Almirante, there are new 3 phase electric posts have been placed in areas that may interfere with the widening of the road, new sidewalks and bike lane. What they had not anticipated is the need to move some of these new electric posts or adapt the road design around them. The electric posts were installed seemingly not taking the design of the new road into account.
As coastal erosion and lack of space in certain stretches on the current dirt road in Paunch and Bluff are a logistical, engineering and environmental concern, there was much speculation that the new paved road would be diverted behind beachfront properties and some distance away from the coast. This, for the most part, is not the case. Pretty much all of the road design runs parallel to the beach, with the idea of paving the same current dirt road; almost exactly as it was first presented in January of 2021. On the stretch in Pauch Beach where erosion is a clear issue (between Skully’s and Paki Point), it was stated during the March 23 presentation, that in that particular area, there will be coastal retaining wall built (about 800 meters long), in effort to maintain that part of the road protected from the crashing waves and erosion it is now facing.
The road will in fact be diverted in one area of Bluff Beach, some distance away from turtle nesting beaches in the protected area. This is one part that differs from the original design presented in January 2021, with an apparent revision after the environmental impact study was reviewed. The road in Bluff Beach will be retreated inland some 120 to 200 meters away from the protected turtle nesting area; an effort to minimize negative impact on the leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtles that have been in nesting on Bluff Beach before any road was built in Panama or the Americas for that matter. Whether or not this modification to the road design eases the concerns of turtle conservationists remains to be seen. We will be following up with at least two environmental experts about this issue.
The other major environmental concern is the new road’s proximity to the protected area of the Mimbitimbi River. Mentioned was the construction of a 65 meter suspension bridge that will divert traffic over the river. There were no other mitigation measures mentioned in the presentation, of which we are aware at least.
The public easement for the Paunch-Bluff-Drago loop road is going to be 20 meters wide. The topic of expropriation of property was not addressed at any time during the March 23 presentation but it is something we will be following up on to help inform property owners in the area that may be affected by the trajectory of this new road design.
Interestingly enough, older Bocatoreños tell us that at least some form of this loop road on the north side of the island has existed for 90 years now. More recently, Mr. Ruben Navarro mentioned that it is something that he and other community leaders have been advocating for the past three decades.
The idea was proposed formally in August 2019 during the “Tourist Cabinet” where community members met with the highest ranking offcials of the newly elected national government to discuss many infrastructural needs, among them the importance of repairing the streets and advocating for the construction this loop road around Isla Colon; Bocas’ version of Panama City’s “Cinta Costera.”
The official design for this infrastructure project was first presented to the community on January 22, 2021, with a public forum for questions, concerns and suggestions from Bocas del Toro island residents.
The environmental impact study was published in May of 2022 and approved March 15, 2023. After the March 23 presentation, a job fair was held the following morning, to create a database of local workers ready to fill the hundreds of job positions necessary to complete this massive public works project. Phase A is scheduled to initiate within the next month, with an estimated one year of completion. There has been no mention of a start date or timeline for Phase B.
In the meantime, Minstory of Public Works lead engineer of the project, national director of study and design, Ing. Rolando Lay has made his contact information public for questions, comments and doubts about the project. See the telephone and email in the image below.
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We are not done with this article. Our small and growing community news team is still working on this story. We will soon update for more commentary on the environmental impact study, interviews with stakeholders and key voices in the community, including a section for comments by the readers of The Bocas Breeze.
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Full Slideshow from the March 23 Presentation in the Park