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Associated Press Newswires

Puerto Rico's $2.3 Billion Commuter Train Touted As Answer To Crowded Island Highways


June 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Concrete platforms rise above crawling traffic on San Juan's main avenues, the foundations of a new commuter train touted as the sole answer for an island metropolis out of highway space but scorned by many car-addicted islanders.

The first of its kind in the Caribbean, the Tren Urbano, or Urban Train, is supposed to decongest highways and bring cheap, speedy transport to a crowded area of more than 1 million people.

But some say it's unlikely to solve traffic problems and is a waste of money in the U.S. territory where the average of 1.7 vehicles per licensed driver indicates the preference for personal transport.

"People won't leave behind their cars," said insurance agent Monserrate Flores, who commutes one hour to work by car. "The whole thing is never going to work."

He said the train's single-line route isn't convenient, and he predicts most who try it will slip back into using their cars.

But 17-year-old Katherine Rivera, a student with no vehicle, is looking forward to the train's scheduled September inauguration. For her, it should be more convenient and time-saving than the five buses she takes daily between home, school and a part-time job.

"It can work," Rivera said.

The train will run 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) from downtown Santurce, a neighborhood packed with small shops, cafeterias, soaring apartment buildings and elegant villas surrounded by verandahs to Bayamon, a western satellite city of low-rise apartments and gated subdivisions.

Along its 40-minute trip, the train will snake between office high-rises, through a tunnel, above the rooftops of auto shops, through open areas of tall grass, past a baseball stadium and to the final stop's parking lot.

Some say it's a shame the train won't reach other congested suburbs or popular destinations like beaches and shopping malls.

Government studies predict 115,000 riders each day. A similar number already use San Juan's buses, and officials hope to attract more riders by redesigning bus routes to start at train stations and run deeper into suburbs. A single fare of $1.50 will allow people to use both the bus and train.

Puerto Rico has long been without a working train. In the early 1900s, there were trains and trolleys, but tracks eventually disappeared under expanding pavement.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that planners decided a new train could ease traffic on the island of 4 million people.

Construction began in 1996 under Gov. Pedro Rossello and continued under Gov. Sila Calderon, who took over in 2001.

The price tag has nearly doubled from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion, with the U.S. government paying 40 percent.

"Each kilometer costs over $100 million," Transportation Secretary Fernando Fagundo has said. "That is shocking."

The rising costs are due in part to radical design changes, including the addition of more stations and a switch from light rail to a heavier train.

The train itself is being built by Siemens AG of Munich, Germany, but the government assigned other jobs piecemeal instead of economizing with single contractors.

High costs prompted the local senate to begin an investigation of possible corruption, and Fagundo said he has referred cases to prosecutors.

The 16 stations - designed by a variety of architects - have cathedral ceilings, granite stairs and tiles in tones from gray to pink. In a decision sure to annoy riders, no station has a bathroom, supposedly considered a security risk.

The project was supposed to be finished in 2001, and some blame the delays on a wasteful bureaucracy, goals that outpaced planning and the doling out of jobs for political reasons.

"At some point the Urban Train became a construction project and not a transportation project," said former Transportation Secretary Hermenegildo Ortiz, who oversaw initial planning in 1990.

But gubernatorial hopeful Carlos Pesquera, a former transportation secretary who oversaw the project in the mid-1990s, defends the costs.

"The network of highways in the metropolitan area won't handle more growth," he said. "There is no space for more lanes and although the train won't be a night-and-day solution, in the coming years it will be the only alternative."

About 1,000 workers are hurrying to finish stations by September, mixing cement and welding steel beams, though the work may stretch into next year.

Trains are already running experimentally on some stretches, and officials say they are moving ahead with plans for an extension to the eastern suburb of Carolina. It will cost an additional $1 billion.


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