The increasing number of visitors to the Costa del Sol in general, and Marbella in particular, this summer has highlighted the fragility of some of the town's infrastructure. There is an urgent need for road improvements. Marbella is the only town in Spain with more than 100,000 inhabitants that has no railway service, and every year the traffic jams in the peak tourist season get worse and worse.
Matters did improve when the tunnel at San Pedro Alcántara was finally built after decades of complaints, but now the problem has moved just a few metres away: the stretch between Marbella and Puerto Banús, in both directions. But that is not the only problem. To the east, on the A-7 between La Cala de Mijas and the arch at the entrance to Marbella (especially the stretch between the hospital and the arch) there are regular traffic jams even outside the tourist season.
Although the Ministry of Transport said last week that there are plans for a third lane to be built between San Pedro and Banús, there is concern that this project will take years to complete, like the scheme to improve the slip roads onto the A-7 at Las Chapas. This was first announced in 2007 and has not yet materialised.
“This project will happen. It is going to be a priority,” insisted the deputy mayor for San Pedro, Rafael Piña. The third lane will cost 17.8 million euros and will include a pedestrian bridge over the road from Puerto Banús to Nueva Andalucía.
The plans for Las Chapas are more complicated, especially because land will have to be compulsorily purchased in order to improve the main access roads onto the dual carriageway between the arch and the hospital.
“I'm not a technician so I can't say what the best technical solution would be for these problems. What is clear though is that this summer there have been some very serious traffic problems. We are growing fast and the infrastructure can't cope, so something has to be done,” said the president of the CIT Tourism Initiative Centre in Marbella, Juan José González. “The tunnel at San Pedro solved the problem we had at that specific point, but now there is massive congestion at Banús,” he said.
“The situation at San Pedro is desperate because the tunnel hasn't really resolved anything. The problem is just a bit further up the road now,” said the spokesman for Taxisol, Víctor Vázquez. The taxi association is one of the groups which is most affected by the traffic jams. “In summer it takes taxis longer to get from Marbella to Guadalmina than it does to get to Malaga airport,” he added.
The same problem occurs at other times of year, as well. “The traffic jams started at Easter this year, and although things improved for a short while afterwards, by May the road was completely overcrowded,” said the head of the Provincial Association of Transport Companies and Agencies of Malaga (Apetam), Juan Sierra. “Time wasted in a traffic jam means money lost and it affects the quality of the service as well,” he said, referring to the long queues which form on the A-7 between La Cala de Mijas and Marbella. “There are so many vehicles that the traffic has to move very slowly, but on top of that if there is an accident the road can be blocked for hours. That has happened several times this year,” he explained.
Making up time
This “criminal” situation, as Juan Sierra puts it, led his association to adopt measures some time ago to gain time on the roads. “The coaches that take people to Algeciras and the Campo de Gibraltar no longer stop for a coffee break at Sabinillas, to make up the half an hour at least that they lose in San Pedro,” he said.
“Nobody seemed to take into account that this area is in the physical centre of the Costa del Sol. On one side San Pedro has Cadiz and Algeciras, and on the other it has Marbella. And to the north, the connection with the Ronda road and the access to Seville. San Pedro already has too much local traffic, but it is also expected to cope with all the vehicles heading for Ronda, Benahavís, Cadiz and Marbella,” said Manuel Fernández Valdivia, the former president of the Pro-Independence Association of San Pedro Alcántara (ISP), who insists that the toll motorway should be opened up to cope with the overflow. “Not just at certain times of day or year; it needs to be permanently toll-free. It is the only alternative to the A-7, which is why these problems keep occurring,” he said.
David Díaz, of the Small and Medium Business Association in San Pedro (Apymespa), believes the new infrastructure which has been created in the area had already become obsolete by the time it opened and, like Fernández Valdivia, he believes that there is already a problem with the volume of local traffic. As an example, he refers to the fact that two lanes merge into one in the 'Bulevar', and added, “The road to the industrial estate [the Ronda road] was not widened which makes it inconvenient for people to visit the local businesses there.”
No alternative to the tolls
The problems reaching Marbella by road have been steadily getting worse for years, and as a result not only has the local council urged the government to take urgent measures, but numerous social and business groups have been doing the same. One of the most common demands is for the government to abolish the tolls on the motorway. Earlier this year local residents, businesses and political parties joined forces to campaign for the motorway to be used toll-free in cases of accidents or when traffic on the old N-340 highway comes to a complete standstill.
The government gave its response in June. “The Ministry of Transport has no plans to cancel the tolls on the motorway when there are traffic jams on the A-7 between Fuengirola-Riviera del Sol-Marbella,” it said in response to a question raised in Parliament.
Other groups have also begun their own battle, putting pressure on for a railway service to run from Malaga to Marbella and Estepona. At present the line stops at Fuengirola. The project was first considered many years ago, but it is still in the study phase.
Rotary clubs have started a petition to support the railway project, and some luxury hotels on the Costa del Sol, such as Los Monteros, have joined in, aware of the damage the traffic congestion on the roads does not only to their image but to that of the whole area.