Jamaica residents and tourists alike are enjoying better travel conditions thanks to a new North Coast Highway, designed by Muscatine-based Stanley Consultants. (Contributed photos) Contributed photos

From an engineering standpoint, Stanley Consultants had the task of designing a 168-mile, two-lane asphalt highway — with features to withstand earthquakes and control flooding — across the rough terrain of Jamaica’s North Coast.

But to the people and the government of Jamaica, what the Muscatine, Iowa, engineering firm delivered was a road to prosperity and future development.

For nearly two decades, Stanley and its engineers have been involved in the planning and construction oversight of a new North Coast Highway from Negril to Montego Bay on the west side of the island to Port Antonio on the east. First built in the 1960s and 1970s, the road is the Caribbean island’s only arterial highway connecting its major coastal tourist destinations.

Due to a lack of maintenance, the existing road had become generally unsafe and a detriment to travel and growth between the population centers, Milton Hodelin, the chief executive officer of Jamaica’s National Works Agency, said during an interview last week at Stanley’s Muscatine headquarters.

“This all had to do with creating access,” he said, explaining that the poor travel conditions kept potential developers from looking too far beyond the island’s airports. “This was a project to improve travel time along the existing road.”

Now with the $334 million construction project nearing completion, he said the whole corridor is beginning to see in-fill development. Hodelin and two other government officials were in Iowa to help Stanley leaders accept the American Council of Engineering Company’s top Grand Conceptor Award. Stanley won the top award in the transportation category of the 2009 Engineering Excellence Awards Competition at an awards ceremony Thursday in Des Moines. The honor moves the company into a national competition.

The award honors a project that shows innovation, complexity and sustainability as well as advances the engineering art and improves society.

“It was an honor and a privilege to serve the government of Jamaica and help them with the development of the North Coast because it needed improvement very badly,” said Gary Foster, a vice president for Stanley Consultants and the project principal on the Jamaican project.

Desmond Malcolm, the Northern Jamaica Development Project’s director, said the government’s goal was to design a road and other infrastructure for the future. “We not only looked out five years, we looked at what will happen in 20 years,” he said, explaining that Stanley played a critical role in creating the master plan.

Actual construction began in 1998 on the first segment and will wrap up with the third segment in June — three years after that portion of the project began.

The government’s investment already is paying off. Malcolm said five Spanish hotels have invested nearly a half-billion dollars in new facilities. In addition, shopping malls and new housing development have sprung up along the highway. A new convention center also is under construction.

With its share of famous world athletes, the nation now is beginning to go after the sports tourism market.

With travel time cut in half across the northern border, Malcolm said developers are no longer leery of building beyond the white sandy beaches.

“The taxi man will tell you, in addition, tires are lasting two times as long,” he said smiling, but serious.

 “Before, travel was so bad it was very lucrative to have small planes fly people across the north coast. After that road went in, the airplane operator went bankrupt.”

The project — built in three segments — also brought new jobs to the tourism-driven economy as locals were hired by other foreign contractors rebuild the highway. Hodelin said 440 Jamaicans and another 120 subcontractors have been employed during construction.

“It has been very good for the local economy,” he said. The project also created spin-off business for restaurants and rental property. In addition, many local residents have become skilled in the trades and moved into private business — finding construction jobs on the new developments.

Dr. Alwin Hales, permanent secretary with the Ministry of Transport and Works, said even projects located off the new roadway are related to its creation — such as a new port for cruise ships. “Now you can find development anywhere along the road,” he said. “Development didn’t even wait until the road was finished (to begin).”

Hodelin said once developers saw the road taking shape, construction began on the other commercial projects.

Since construction, annual revenue from all hotel operations has reached $150 million and more than 1,350 new hotel rooms have opened. In addition, 1,300 new jobs have been created along the corridor.

Immediately after the first section of highway opened, there was an increase in traffic accidents along the smooth, spacious thoroughfares, Malcolm said. “In Jamaica, it is wide open and we like to drive very fast.” But drivers now are being more cautious, he added.

The preparation also involved a significant land acquisition and resettlement effort that moved people from substandard housing to new structures. “There were various activities along the road,” Malcolm said. It also was necessary to relocate the roadside vendors to commercial centers for safety reasons. “We have a lot of people, squatters … but the government developed a policy to resettle these people and improve their lot.”

For Stanley’s engineers, the project offered plenty of challenges — with the need for multiple bridges and culverts to deal with drainage, measures to correct alignment to improve unsafe conditions, and adding infrastructure such as sewer and utilities. “It may be the Caribbean and an island, but it was tough terrain,” Foster said of the swamps and rocky conditions.

According to Hodelin, Stanley Consultants has become a household name in Jamaican circles. He said the engineering firm from Muscatine, Iowa, has set the new standard for his country.

Stanley now operates an office in Jamaica, he said recalling how engineers went there “thinking they would be going for six months or a year, but then stayed three or four years.”

“It’s really overwhelming to look back over the years,” Foster said, adding that the engineers “didn’t fully comprehend” the impact the project would have when the design work began 17 years ago. “Now when we look back on the whole project it’s amazing what we accomplished — not just Stanley, but the government.”

“It took longer (than expected), but our scope was always being expanded,” he said, adding that Stanley plans to vie for the next project there — a new road along the southern corridor.