Mérida considers the future of its controversial underwater underpass

City Hall source says the paso deprimido was considered a folly from the start

The future of a nine-year-old underpass in Mérida is in doubt after being plagued by floods. As of Wednesday, once clear cenote water had become murky. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
The future of a nine-year-old highway underpass in Mérida is in doubt after being plagued by floods. As of Wednesday, once clear cenote water had become murky. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A task force to assess the future of a flood-prone underpass was announced Tuesday by Mérida Mayor Renán Barrera. The short but controversial Prolongación tunnel has been underwater on and off since June.

Barrera held a press conference to announce the task force, charged with assessing the viability of the paso deprimido.

The landmark was closed to traffic when it flooded in June 2020. After lengthy repairs, the cenote beneath it rose again in October following a summer of record-breaking rain. It’s created a bottleneck ever since.

The underpass was built in 2011 during the tenure of Mayor Angélica Araujo. Construction cost the city 64.4 million pesos and tens of millions in associated maintenance costs. Since the inception of the project, concerns abounded given the shallow surface level depth of the city’s water table.

At a highway underpass that flooded in June, and again in October, once-clear cenote water has become murky. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

During the first couple weeks of the flooding, residents of Mérida took to social media to mock the situation and authorities by creating memes and fake tourism advertisements featuring the “Cenote del paso deprimido.” Dolphins and swimmers were Photoshopped frolicking in the water. The local Burger King even shot a lighthearted commercial there, touting its newfound water views.

Though at first the floodwaters appeared crystalline, further rain and runoff from nearby streets eventually had it resembling a swamp.

“This kind of flooding after intense precipitation is not surprising at all,” said civil engineer Raul Flores. “The biggest problem is that it is not possible to simply pump the water out, as the issue is not the rain but rather the rising of the water table.”

The mayor’s office has claimed that when it comes to the paso deprimido, all options are on the table.

However, it seems unlikely that this piece of city infrastructure is salvageable. A source working for the state, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed frustration with the situation.

“Even back in 2011 everyone knew this would happen eventually. It was obvious, yet the project went forth anyway,” the source told Yucatán Expat Life.

The underground parking lot at The Harbor shopping mall suffered a similar fate and its lower level remained completely flooded as of today. After the flooding, experts (some in scuba gear) were brought in to assess the damage and ensure that the electrical mains which run below the parking lot had all been disconnected. 

Before its closure, the paso deprimido, which runs underneath one of the city’s busiest intersections, accommodated approximately 47,000 vehicles a day. Its closure made traffic significantly worse.

During rush hour, police officers often guide traffic along the roundabout to keep traffic flowing. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.