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Mexicans Take to New Toll Roads, Holding Tight to Their Wallets

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BRONZED and rested, computer consultant Katiuska Perez is back from a holiday in Acapulco via the new ``Autopista del Sol'' (Sun Highway).

Like many Mexicans, Ms. Perez praises the shorter driving time (3 1/2 hours instead of six) on the toll road linking Mexico City to the famous resort. But she complains about how it pinches her pocketbook: ``240 pesos [about $77] each way! That has to be some of the most expensive scenery in Mexico,'' she says.

The Sun Highway is the ``jewel in the crown'' of more than 4,000 kilometers (2,486 miles) of privately-run highways built since 1989.

In 1988, most major cities here were connected by crowded, two-lane highways. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari promised 4,000 kilometers of new four-lane roads by the end of 1994 - the most ambitious privately-funded highway program in the world. The $8.5 billion program has taken on greater relevance with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexican companies see the roads as crucial in enabling them to compete and ship goods north.

The Salinas government has surpassed its goal and is building more private roads, but the tollways are among the most expensive in the world. In the United States, drivers pay 3 to 14 cents a mile on toll roads. Mexicans pay about 20 to 80 cents a mile, says William Reinhard, editor of Public Works Financing, a US trade publication.

Mexican bus companies threatened to boycott the Sun Highway when it opened last July. The consortium operating the Sun Highway reportedly agreed to a 15 percent discount for private bus firms. ``The original tariffs were exceedingly high,'' says Francisco Martinez, spokesman for the National Chamber of Passenger and Tourist Transportation, representing about 700 bus companies. ``They want us to use the roads, and we want to give better service to our customers. So we've reached mutually beneficial agreements.'' That means discounts on some roads and agreements not to raise prices for given periods of time.

Truckers, particularly independent operators, are even more unhappy about the rates. The Mexican trucking industry currently is being deregulated, in the midst of an economic slump. Using the toll road may mean less wear on the vehicle and faster delivery times, but the sizable tolls can cut into profits. The Mexico-Acapulco tollway, for example, charges a six-axle truck almost $450 dollars each way.

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