National Agenda : Caution: Some Mexico Tollways Paved in Gold : The tolls outpace people's pocketbooks as government seeks to recoup billions used to finance new roads.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At rush hour on Friday evening, the highway vista stretching eastward is one to delight and amaze any Southern Californian: four lanes of empty asphalt, as far as the eye can see; no graffiti on the overpasses or road signs, and only a single billboard, extolling the virtues of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI.

On the surface, the new, privately financed Merida-to-Cancun highway spanning the Yucatan Peninsula--charging cars $35 and trucks more than $100 for the 160-mile stretch--seems an unlikely proposition: running one of the world's most expensive toll roads through some of the most underdeveloped jungle.

But if this and other tollways built in Mexico over the past six years succeed, they may serve as models to cash-strapped, Third World governments looking for ways to finance infrastructure as they move toward a market economy.

Dozens of similar projects are under way in China, Indonesia, Brazil and even Russia, although none are as far along as those in Mexico. The major drawback to these roadways, Mexican residents say, is that commercial considerations (often international tourism) and private investors (including foreigners) can determine such crucial factors as the route, the tolls and the location of exits.

The Merida-Cancun highway, for example, links the region's commercial and political capital near the Gulf of Mexico to its money-generating tourism behemoth on the Caribbean. Not surprisingly--at the prices it charges--traffic is now largely confined to truckloads of high-priced goods, armored cars carrying cash, tourist buses and wealthy travelers' cars. Ordinary Mexicans use the old roads.

As the tollway slashes across northern Yucatan's jungle scrub and forest, it cuts through the ranchos of two dozen Maya farmers, some of whom have planted rows of maize right up to the metal wire fences that protect the road's shoulder.

At the start of his six-year term in 1988, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced ambitious plans to complete 2,500 miles of privately funded tollways by 1994, bringing the total to 3,100 miles. But that goal and timetable pushed the cost of construction to an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion, a heavy load for investors, some of them foreigners. The price tag for the Mexico City-Acapulco tollway alone is estimated at $900 million; the Mexico City-Guadalajara estimate is $1.2 billion.

The puzzle was how to recoup that kind of investment, much less service the debt. The only answer was to charge tolls that were out of reach for most Mexicans: Toluca to Mexico City, 14 miles, $6.30; Mexico City to Acapulco, 202 miles, $80; Acapulco to Cuernavaca, 165 miles, $60. When Long Beach resident Bill Hepler recently balked at the $7.50 Tijuana-Tecate toll for 22 miles, he said the toll booth operator accused him of being cheap.

While business is good in the Tijuana area and on the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, tolls have kept traffic way down on the newer Mexican tollways in less-traveled areas such as Yucatan, government officials say. On a drive along the entire Merida-Cancun stretch over a two-day period, fewer than 50 vehicles were observed in both directions.

"Something is going to have to give," said Abel Beltran-del Rio, president of Ciemex-Wefa, a Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.-based group specializing in Mexican economic development. "Either they reduce the fees in one way or another, or some of these highways will have no demand."

Tollway authorities have to refinance the debt in the next few years, Beltran-del Rio said, stretching out the repayment schedule to investors from 20 to 35 years.

Meanwhile, some residents living along the new routes are unhappy about the cost. In Baja California last year, protesters several times blocked a section of Mexico's Highway 2 near the town of La Rumorosa. The government plans to incorporate the public highway, which links Tijuana and Mexicali, into sections of a new, privately funded toll road.

Responding to the protests, the federal secretary for communication and transportation announced a toll reduction for the section.

Along the west coast of Mexico, a trip through the high deserts of Sonora into the cornfields of Sinaloa state is punctuated by yet more toll stations, forewarned in the barren landscape by the telltale sign: "Prepare Su Cuota," get your money ready for gates at upcoming towns:

Magdalena, Estacion Don, Hermosillo, Fundicion, Esperanza, each for the price of a U.S. movie and equally unpredictable in value. Six dollars can buy two hours of driving on one stretch of the interstate, less than 40 minutes on another.

But there are choices. "Via Libre" or "Via Cuota," free route or toll route, becomes the constant gamble, both in road conditions and in fact. There is the incentive of a lottery ticket at every tollbooth: "Take the Good Road and Win!" the ticket urges, offering as a prize a four-door 1994 Volkswagen Golf, fully loaded.

The privately funded Merida-Cancun tollway has so far generated less publicity and protest than others in Mexico. One reason for the lack of protests in Yucatan is that a serviceable parallel route, Highway 180, already exists between Merida and Cancun. There are, nonetheless, complaints, even among those affluent enough to use the route.

"People don't like the high prices," said Carlos R. Menendez Navarrete, publisher of El Diario de Yucatan, the peninsula's largest newspaper. "And there have been some complaints about the construction. They say the road is too narrow."

Francisco P. Maya, who sells hammocks in Merida, likes the tollway but cannot use it to commute to his home in Yokdzonot, southeast of Chichen Itza. "There aren't any exits near enough to my home," Maya said. "That's the problem."

Between Merida and Cancun, a distance of 160 miles, there are only two exits, for the colonial city of Valladolid and the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza.

For those living in the tollway's path, life has changed considerably.

About 5,000 Maya farmers were displaced by the highway in Yucatan and Quintana Roo states, according to Yucatan state officials. Some of those displaced and others living nearby are upset that the fenced highway means they are now unable to move their animals across the right-of-way for grazing.

And questions have been raised about the manner in which the route was acquired and the owners compensated, especially the ejidos, communal tracts distributed after the Mexican revolution. On the plus side, the construction provided relatively well-paying jobs for local subsistence farmers.

Because the route between Merida and Cancun is mostly flat and relatively straight, construction cost considerably less than other Mexican tollways, an estimated $225 million--only double initial estimates. Like the others, the Merida-Cancun route reduces the driving time nearly by half, in this case by cutting through the jungle. One modern service plaza has been completed and a second is nearly done. Except for a more exotic variety of road kill and the absence of emergency call boxes, it could be any superhighway.

The new tollway is no guarantee traffic tragedies can be avoided. On the day President Salinas came to Yucatan to open the completed tollway on Oct. 21, 1993, two members of the inaugural committee were killed in a taxi accident on the roadway. Last month, five priests were killed when a tire exploded and their van overturned near Valladolid.

"The tollway is very well built, but the speed limit is too high," said the Rev. John Lomasney, a Maryknoll priest who has spent 50 of his 77 years in Yucatan. "Our people don't have the experience to drive at those high speeds."

Still, on a recent trip, traffic moved at autobahn speeds. The only vehicle driving within the posted 70 miles per hour limit belonged to the tollway authority. Roadside signs urge drivers to fasten their seat belts, which, alas, many vehicles in Yucatan still do not have.

Times staff writer Lee Romney, in Sinaloa, contributed to this report.

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