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Caguas To San Juan In 15 Minutes

Refusing to wait for the Urban Train’s planned expansion to Caguas by 2020, Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marin is leading the effort to build a $282 million light-rail system to connect his city with San Juan by 2007.


April 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

It can be done: Starting in 2007, the $282 million Caguas-San Juan light-rail system could initially move 25,000 passengers each way per day, cutting the rush-hour commute time from 90 minutes to 15, feeding passengers to the Urban Train, and reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.

Since becoming mayor of Caguas nearly eight years ago, William Miranda Marin—a firm believer that government should be a facilitator, not an obstructionist—has striven to make the island’s fifth-largest city a business-friendly, high-tech haven that attracts industries, educational institutions, businesses, and new residents. At the same time, he has invested in the city’s infrastructure and public services to improve the quality of life of the more than 400,000 Caguas residents.

Miranda Marin’s past successful endeavors in the private and public sectors, as well as his military experience, have helped him run the city of Caguas like a service company. His sometimes controversial, out-of-the-box thinking and style have won him the praise and admiration of people from all over the political spectrum.

Ever since the idea of building a mass-transit system in the greater San Juan metro area began to take shape during the Rossello administration, Miranda Marin has envisioned extending it to Caguas to alleviate the traffic from the estimated 81,000 vehicles that take the expressway between that city and San Juan each day. And the number of cars on the road continues to rise every year.

Why a light-rail system for Caguas-San Juan?

"On average, people from Caguas are spending three hours going to San Juan and back by car. The proposed light-rail system, which would connect Caguas with the Urban Train station in Cupey, would take 15 minutes. It would create a culture of mass transportation and would help people depend less on the automobile," Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marin told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

Changing people’s attitudes to mass transportation could have tremendous implications for the island. For instance, it could save money on road and vehicle maintenance, reduce pollution, and generally improve the quality of life, he added.

"The average household has two, sometimes three vehicles, with each vehicle requiring insurance, maintenance, gasoline, and toll expenses. That takes a big chunk out of a family’s budget. If we can get people to use the train and reduce the number of cars per household by one or two, those families could buy a home or pay college tuition with the money they save," said Miranda Marin.

Another big plus of the light-rail system, which would be significantly cheaper to build than a heavy-rail train, is that it would feed the Urban Train a significant number of passengers, initially estimated at 20,000 to 25,000 each way per day.

Once these passengers arrive at the Cupey station, they could proceed to their final destinations in the San Juan metro area via the Urban Train. That would mean fewer cars on the road, less congestion, and less pollution.

Building the case for the train

Five years ago, the topic of extending the Urban Train to Caguas arose during a meeting at La Fortaleza between Gov. Pedro Rossello, Transportation Secretary Carlos Pesquera, and Miranda Marin.

Before that meeting, Miranda Marin had sent a letter to Pesquera expressing his interest in extending the Urban Train to Caguas. Additionally, the Caguas legislative assembly had approved a resolution supporting Miranda Marin’s petition, which was later sent to Pesquera.

"At the meeting, Rossello inquired how much it would cost to take the train to Caguas, and Pesquera quickly gave a rough estimate of $200 million. Rossello instructed Pesquera to work on the idea. However, Pesquera was preparing to become the next gubernatorial candidate of the New Progressive Party, and the focus was on completing the first phase of the Urban Train. Nothing else was done," recalled Miranda Marin.

When Miranda Marin’s Popular Democratic Party won the general elections in 2000, he again brought up his idea for a mass-transit project between Caguas and San Juan. "All I got was negative answers," he said.

When government officials told Miranda Marin in 2002 that the proposed extension wouldn’t happen until 2020, following the Urban Train’s master plan, he immediately sought ways to make it happen sooner. For him, waiting until 2020 was unacceptable.

"Given the central government’s bureaucracy and inefficiency, and citizens’ frustrations with a government that doesn’t meet their needs, mayors have to take charge," said Miranda Marin. "That means changing the municipalities’ administrative schemes. We can’t continue to think small; we must look beyond our cities."

If a mayor doesn’t see action in the central government, he or she has the legal and moral obligation to say what has to be done and to fight for it, he added. That is just what he has been doing with the light-rail project.

"People talk about empowerment as if it were a pretty word. I’m trying to give real significance to that word in Caguas," said Miranda Marin. "In order to empower the people, the local government leadership has to be empowered as well. That’s why mayors like me fight so hard for municipal autonomy."

Lacking the $1 million needed for a comprehensive viability study of the project, Miranda Marin commissioned a less costly preliminary study by Semaly, a French company with many years of experience in these types of projects worldwide. The idea was to use the preliminary study to get the central government involved in the project.

Semaly, said Miranda Marin, concluded the light-rail project was viable and wouldn’t be that expensive compared with extending the $2.3 billion heavy-rail Urban Train to Caguas.

With the preliminary study in hand, Miranda Marin met with Transportation Secretary Jose Izquierdo, who was intent on extending the Urban Train to Caguas by 2020. By the end of the meeting, however, Miranda Marin had convinced Izquierdo to support his project. The Highway & Transportation Authority allocated the $1 million needed for the comprehensive viability study.

The money for the more complex $15 million design study, later needed for the project’s construction, would come from the Infrastructure Financing Authority.

The viability study

For the viability study, Semaly and local firm Innovative Transportation Group evaluated several mass-transit systems, commuters’ preferences for various types of transportation, their willingness to pay between $1.50 and $2 per trip on a mass-transit system, projections for demand, route alternatives, the cost-benefit proposition, and more.

The study, which took almost a year to complete, revealed that 54% of the 565,900 one-way trips between Caguas and San Juan each week were work-related, and 66% of potential users preferred a light-rail train to buses. The study also concluded the light-rail technology could provide an effective and efficient mass-transportation service between Caguas and San Juan.

"I was against using buses because these have lost credibility; we have tried them before. You have to provide something new, innovative, and fast to attract people’s attention," said Miranda Marin.

During rush hour, the train would be able to transport some 266 passengers at a time from a station at Las Catalinas Mall in Caguas to the Urban Train’s Cupey station in just 15 minutes at 75 miles per hour. At best, cars travel the expressway at 12 miles per hour during rush hour.

According to the study, the light-rail system’s capital investment was estimated at $281.5 million. That is equivalent to $15 million per kilometer, or roughly 10% of the Urban Train’s per-kilometer cost. The train’s annual operational and maintenance costs were estimated at $3.9 million.

"The cost-benefit analysis of the project came up very high," said Miranda Marin, a former executive director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. "The viability study highly recommended the project, suggesting the Highway & Transportation Authority give it a high priority."

The viability study, he noted, already includes about 15% of the design study.

PR1 or PR52

Two routes were analyzed as the most feasible for the proposed light-rail system between Caguas and Cupey: PR1 and the Luis A. Ferre Expressway (PR52).

"PR1 has a number of obstacles. First, it is too narrow; we would have to expropriate land to add traffic lanes on the sides to make room for the train’s guideway along the median. In addition, PR1 has numerous intersections, which make the project much more difficult and costly."

The study estimated the cost of building the train’s guideway along PR1 at $180.7 million, whereas it would cost $111.3 million along PR52.

So, the viability study, Miranda Marin pointed out, recommended PR52 as the best route for the light-rail train, even though the Highway & Transportation Authority had preferred PR1.

The proposed light-rail system would use the median of PR52 to connect Las Catalinas Mall Station in Caguas with the existing Urban Train station in Cupey.

Already, the Department of Transportation & Public Works has widened some of the bridges along PR52 for a reversible express lane between the intersection of Montehiedra and PR1.

In an open letter published in local newspapers, Miranda Marin questioned adding more lanes, which would only increase people’s dependence on cars instead of fostering a culture of mass transit.

Miranda Marin was told the design of the bridges had been modified to withstand the weight of a commuter train like the one he proposes. An additional 12 bridges would be needed for the light-rail project.

"The bridges can be built simultaneously with various contractors. The Caguas station, as well as the connector station in Cupey, can go out to bid this year," said Miranda Marin. "Since it is a light rail, we can have it running in 2007. If this were a heavy-rail project, it would take us at least seven years to build."

Las Catalinas & Cupey stations

The Las Catalinas Mall Station in Caguas would become a hub where various modes of transportation [buses, taxis, private carriers (minibuses)] and parking for 2,000 vehicles (park-and-ride) would be accessible to residents of Caguas and neighboring municipalities.

The station would integrate a train depot and a maintenance garage, and would be built on a 45,000-square-meter lot owned by the city next to Las Catalinas Mall.

The light-rail system’s Cupey station would be built right next to the existing Urban Train station, which already has parking for vehicles, buses, and private carriers.

Although the possibility of a station in Montehiedra has been considered, Miranda Marin would prefer the light-rail system initially operate nonstop between Caguas and Cupey.

"I have insisted that the system should be without stops initially. That way, people can really appreciate its time savings," said Miranda Marin. "If it is decided later that a stop in Montehiedra is needed, fine and dandy. For now, though, it should go straight, without stops, to better attract people’s interest."

Miranda Marin said the light-rail system could initially move between 20,000 and 25,000 people each way per day—if it is promoted well and starts off on the right foot. Even with those numbers, the project will be profitable. Adding another station, however, could have a negative impact on the commuter train’s early success, he cautioned.

"Once it is working and word spreads, the numbers could quickly go up to 30,000 to 40,000 people each way per day," said Miranda Marin. "At that point, it will be very profitable."

Design study

Miranda Marin is in the process of hiring the firm to design the light-rail system. He has recommended Semaly since it has been working on the project from the start.

"Semaly is in this project because of my personal involvement. This project will benefit the entire region, but it has become a pet project of mine, one that I want to come to fruition soon for the people of Caguas," he said.

The $15 million cost of Semaly’s design, he said, is peanuts compared with the $150 million to $200 million spent on the Urban Train’s design.

Although the company that will build the boxcars hasn’t been chosen, Miranda Marin said these will be a light rail / trolley combination with elevated power lines. The manufacturer of the light-rail train will probably be a French firm since these types of trains aren’t built in the U.S. Semaly doesn’t build trains, but it can recommend a manufacturer.

Financing the project

The viability study identified three alternatives for the project’s financing, construction, and operation, according to Miranda Marin.

First is the traditional method, whereby the government assumes all the responsibilities for the design, construction, operation, and financing. In the second scenario, the public authority assumes responsibility for the design and construction, but hires a private entity to operation the system for a specific time and under certain conditions.

In the third, a private entity handles the design, financing, construction, and operation for a specific period.

"I think we should do this project through a combination of the private and public sectors but decline using federal funds because this project will make money. I think it will pay for itself," said Miranda Marin, who was also executive vice president of the Government Development Bank.

"I have been working in steps to get the financing of this project squared away," he added. "Once we get the design going, I believe that by the summer I will have the financial structure defined and will be able to close the deal with the main players in this project."

Miranda Marin said he wouldn’t use federal funds for his project at this juncture because that money should go to extending the Urban Train to Carolina. "The federal government recently awarded several million dollars for extending the Urban Train to Carolina, and I’m not going to compete with that," he said.

Although projects like the Caguas-San Juan light-rail train normally take four to five years to complete, Miranda Marin is optimistic about getting his inaugurated in three-and-a-half years tops.

"In the coming weeks, I’ll be signing the design contract and identifying the rolling stock to begin working on the financing alternatives," said Miranda Marin. "If I can get that done, we could be riding the train by 2007."

Rossello proposes expanding roads network; extending Urban Train to Minillas, Caguas, and Carolina; building train system for entire island

New Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rossello recently unveiled his far-reaching plan to develop Puerto Rico’s land-transportation network, aimed at reducing road congestion and opening new avenues of economic development throughout the island.

He believes it will help to transform Puerto Rico into a great island-city, not a place divided into multiple jurisdictions. The system proposed by Rossello would reduce the travel time between island regions to two hours maximum and within metro areas to no more than 45 minutes.

"Our objective is to create in Puerto Rico a world-class land-transportation system that is safe and multimodal," said Rossello. "The proposal we are presenting will reduce in a balanced fashion the travel time between destinations, and the operational cost of the roads network, as well as the environmental impact that land transportation entails."

Other objectives of Rossello’s plan include the incorporation of intelligent transportation systems, the development of a decentralized maintenance system using the latest technology, and the enhancement of road safety to reduce by 5% the number of accidents per vehicle-mile traveled.

"We will make the greatest infrastructure investment in our history to achieve our objectives while maintaining the financial classification of the transportation fund," said Rossello. "At the same time, we will reorganize Transportation’s umbrella departments to speed up decisions. This way, we will reverse the paralysis in construction projects seen during this administration because of a lack of management decisions."

Projects that Rossello intends to revitalize include the conversion of PR2 into an expressway between Aguadilla and Hormigueros; the construction of PR22 between Hatillo and Aguadilla; the construction of PR53 between Yabucoa and Guayama, including the Maunabo tunnels, work on which was halted during the current administration; the completion of PR10 between Adjuntas and Utuado; and the completion of Route 66, which was also halted during this administration.

"In the San Juan metro area, we will immediately extend the Urban Train to Minillas, Caguas, and Carolina. We also intend to rescue the Metropolitan Bus Authority in order to transport 200,000 passengers daily," said Rossello.

Rossello also hopes to build a modern rail system for the transportation of passengers and cargo islandwide that would use the existing infrastructure in an efficient and environmentally safe manner. The system, "Tren todo Puerto Rico" (All Puerto Rico Train), would have two main lines: Line 1 would operate in the northern part of the island; Line 2 would run in the south. Each would be divided into two segments: East and West.

"This rail system will be complemented by the added capacity of our expressways and the extension of the Urban Train to Minillas, Old San Juan, Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, and Carolina," said Rossello.

Rossello said the project to build an islandwide rail system is ambitious, but it is viable.

Miranda Marin: empowerment through municipal autonomy

Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marin believes municipalities must take charge of their own destinies.

Whether it is making a commuter train between Caguas and San Juan a reality or fighting the high rates the State Insurance Fund charges municipalities, Miranda Marin said mayors have the legal and moral responsibility to say what has to be done and to fight for it.

This has become even more necessary, he said, because of the central government’s bureaucracy and inefficiency and citizens’ frustrations with a government that doesn’t fulfill their needs.

"We [mayors] have a moral responsibility to make sure challenges become opportunities," said Miranda Marin. "First, we must change the mentality and foster self-initiative. The old mentality of waiting for someone to solve our problems can no longer be."

He said such efforts are being promoted among entrepreneurs and low-income families in his municipality. One example is the East-Central Technological Initiative (Inteco).

"There are 15,000 job promotion and economic development agencies in the U.S. The Economic Development & Commerce Department is competing against these 15,000 agencies," Miranda Marin said. "The municipalities must...take charge of our development and get involved to make it happen."

Only then will the municipalities truly have empowerment. "I’m trying to give real significance to that word in Caguas," said Miranda Marin. "To empower the people, the local government leadership has to be empowered as well. That’s why mayors like me fight so hard in favor of municipal autonomy.

"Jose Aponte in Carolina, Guillermo Rodriguez in Mayaguez, and Anibal Melendez in Fajardo; they’re all taking charge," continued Miranda Marin. "Mayors want the central government to tend to their city’s needs. If it can’t, then it should facilitate things so the mayors can."

Miranda Marin admitted that not all municipalities have the ability to face the challenges, which is why he has proposed consolidating municipalities. Currently, there are 78 municipalities, and he believes there should be no more than 50.

"I’m talking about consolidation, not elimination. This has been going on for a long time throughout the counties on the U.S. mainland and the provinces in Europe," said Miranda Marin. "There are municipalities in Puerto Rico that are too small to generate enough revenue even for maintenance or payroll. We have to consolidate, and when we do, we’re going to find the solutions to our problems."

As long as he is mayor of Caguas, Miranda Marin promises to be an agent of change. "I believe it’s good for the regions and good for all of Puerto Rico," he said.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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