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With 2.5 million registered vehicles for a population of some four million, Puerto Rico is fast becoming a big parking lot. Here is what the government is doing to reduce traffic in problem areas and shorten the commute time.
By JOSE L. CARMONA
September 2, 2004
Are we there yet?
Every day, thousands of drivers suffer long delays and major jams in rush-hour traffic. Relief is on the way, however, from several highway projects under construction and the long-anticipated rollout of the Urban Train.
Over the past five decades, every government administration has dedicated millions of dollars every year to developing Puerto Ricos highway and road infrastructure. In fiscal year 2004 alone, the Highway & Transportation Authority (HTA) had a $698.4 million budget for road construction and improvements.
With 2.5 million registered vehicles on the island traveling on 17,000 kilometers (10,563 miles) of paved roads, however, no amount of money is ever going to be enough to solve the islands traffic problems.
Experts agree that building more new highways isnt the answer for the long run; they say Puerto Rico must switch to mass-transit systems just as every other highly populated area in the world has done. The Urban Train is a good start, but it will help only the San Juan metro area. Traffic problems exist all over Puerto Rico. So, what is being done to solve them?
Too many cars, too many roads
Fernando Fagundo, secretary of the Department of Transportation & Public Works (DTOP by its Spanish acronym) and former executive director of the HTA, said Puerto Rico made a mistake when it stopped running the train in the 1950s. The lack of a train combined with an unreliable public-transportation system created a dependence on and a love for personal vehicles.
"The result of that mistake is that we now have the highest vehicle density [number of vehicles per square mile of paved roads] in the world. It is mind-boggling," said Fagundo. "Puerto Ricos vehicle density exceeds Manhattans."
If the number of vehicles on our roads continues to grow at the current rate and we keep pretending it isnt a problem, consumers will continue buying in excess of 123,000 new vehicles a year, drowning us in cars, roads, and pollution, said Fagundo.
"If we try to catch up to the number of vehicles by expanding our road network, we will end up covering the entire island with asphalt and perhaps even building double-decker highways," he said. "The cost to taxpayers and to the environment will be tremendous."
As noted, there are some 2.5 million registered vehicles and some 11,000 miles of paved roads on the island. By comparison, Haiti, which is 10 times the size of Puerto Rico, has only 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers), said Fagundo.
"Statistics tell us the number of vehicles doubles every 20 years. That means we would need 34,000 kilometers [21,127 miles] of paved roads to accommodate five million vehicles. Thats why we have the traffic problems we have today," said Fagundo. "On the other hand, if we dont build highways, we will be condemned to live in a traffic jam 24 hours a day. Theres no way out."
That is why, he said, Puerto Rico must change its attitude toward personal vehicles and mass transit. The islands road network and environment will collapse if the number of vehicles on the road continues rising unabated. According to Fagundo, if the number doubles, we will end up wearing masks like people do in Mexico City, one of the cities most polluted by vehicle emissions.
"We must dedicate all of our efforts to mass transit; mass transit is our only salvation. There is no other option if we want to save whatever is left of this island," said Fagundo.
The $2.25 billion Urban Train, which should start running between Bayamon and Santurce this year, is the first phase of a project to build an efficient mass-transit system in the San Juan metro area, including Carolina and Caguas. Over the past few years, the Urban Train has been plagued with numerous delays and cost overruns. A 12-day series of test runs and systems evaluations was completed recently, as were repairs to the rail crossovers (which allow trains to be switched from one track to another).
In the meantime, what about our highways?
Fagundo said DTOP is attacking the islands most egregious traffic problems, especially those in the San Juan metro area, on two fronts: improving traffic flow at the most troublesome intersections and completing the islands strategic road network.
There are three main projects under way, requiring a $73 million investment, at various metro-area intersections: the Trujillo Alto Expressway (PR181) intersection with 65th Infantry Avenue (PR3); the Las Americas Expressway (PR18) intersection with the De Diego Expressway (PR22) next to Plaza Las Americas; and the PR2 intersection with the Martinez Nadal Expressway (PR20) in Caparra, beside San Patricio Plaza.
A $33.6 million, four-lane overpass with exits in all directions is being built over 65th Infantry Avenue, which Fagundo said will eliminate the worst traffic jam in the metro area. Currently at 50% of completion, construction should be finished in May 2005.
The $30.2 million improvements to the intersection of PR18 and PR22 are being divided into three projects, involving relocating utilities on Chardon and Calaf streets, creating an access ramp from Chardon Street to PR18, and making other improvements in the area. The ramp, now at 80% of completion, should be operational by October.
"With this access ramp, the traffic jams at Roosevelt and Cesar Gonzalez avenues will be a thing of the past, as these two avenues absorbed all the traffic from Calaf and Chardon streets, which had no ramps to the expressway," said Fagundo. "This will ease the traffic flow in all directions to all local streets and greatly reduce traffic in the Hato Rey and Puerto Nuevo areas."
Requiring a $9.1 million investment, the overpass spanning the Martinez Nadal Expressway in Caparra will eliminate the infamous traffic light at the end of the expressway leading onto PR2. The project, now 50% completed, should be wrapped up by May 2005.
"This will end the traffic jams at PR2 or Martinez Nadal going to Roosevelt Avenue, as there will be ramps without traffic lights in all directions," said Fagundo. "Additionally, and at a minimal cost of $100,000, we will make an entrance to San Patricio Avenue off Roosevelt Avenue. Now, there will be direct entry and exit to Roosevelt Avenue, which will solve a tremendous traffic problem there."
Fagundo said similar projects are under construction to reduce traffic at troublesome intersections in Arroyo, Aibonito-Cayey, Fajardo, Humacao, Bayamon, Arecibo, Comerio, Naranjito-Toa Alta, Utuado, Mayaguez, San German, and Ponce-Peñuelas.
Completing the strategic road network
Efforts to complete the islands strategic road network have been under way for several years; if all goes well, said Fagundo, it might be done in 2006.
The Spanish and U.S. governments originally developed the islands strategic road network during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It consisted of three main roads: PR1, running from San Juan to Ponce through Caguas; PR2, running from San Juan to Ponce through Arecibo, Aguadilla, and Mayaguez; and PR3, running from San Juan to Ponce through Fajardo, Humacao, and Salinas.
"The objective is to cover the same areas as the first network, but using expressways instead of roads," said Fagundo. "PR1 was replaced by PR52 [Luis A. Ferre Expressway]. PR3 is being replaced by PR53, currently under development up to Yabucoa, though eventually it will reach Guayama. PR2 was replaced by PR22 [De Diego Expressway], which only extends to Hatillo but eventually will reach Aguadilla."
There are also PR30 from Caguas to Humacao; the new PR10, from Arecibo to Ponce; and the controversial and oft-delayed PR66, aka the Eastern Corridor, from Carolina to Rio Grande.
Fagundo said DTOP has already begun the study to extend PR22 from Hatillo to Aguadilla, and though there are some challenges, he is confident these will be overcome.
"The area between Hatillo and Aguadilla hosts the largest concentration of milk production in the world. It would be easy for us to go through the open fields, but the impact on the dairy farms would be tremendous. So, in that section we will use an overpass," he said. "Extending PR22 in that area is critical because all the businesses have developed along PR2."
On the famous Aguadilla curve, the PR22 extension wont follow PR2 but will go around it to connect with PR111. The area by the two main gates to Ramey on PR2 in Aguadilla will be vastly improved, said Fagundo, since the former military base is expected to become an air transshipment port. All the major air-cargo companies (including FedEx and UPS) already make daily flights from Ramey, he noted.
The intersection at the entrance to the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez is scary-looking and confusing, which Fagundo said makes it expensive and complex to fix, but it will get done. "More-complex problems have been solved in the world. Its going to be costly, but we are working on it and the project will soon go out to bid," he said.
From Mayaguez to Ponce, PR2 will be converted into an expressway. The 42 intersections along the route will be reduced to 15, with overpasses spanning the intersections. "There are 10 overpasses under construction, and the Peñuelas intersection has already gone out to bid," said Fagundo. "We will complete it little by little as we secure the funds."
The HTA is investing $87 million in the PR2 expressway conversion, which should be completed in late 2005.
All that is left to complete PR10 is a section between Utuado and Adjuntas, which has been divided into four projects. Three of the projects are under construction; the fourth, estimated at $100 million, is still pending. The entire job is slated for completion in 2007.
PR66 is under construction between Carolina and Canovanas at a $145 million investment. "The section from Canovanas to Rio Grande should go out to bid in a few days," said Fagundo.
In the east, all that is left to complete PR53 is a section from Yabucoa to Maunabo. The first and second parts of the project, including the connection of Yabucoa with a one-kilometer underground tunnel, recently went out to bid.
"The Maunabo-to-Patillas section is currently under evaluation and should go out to bid next year," said Fagundo. "From Patillas on, the road is in pretty good condition because we have invested heavily in PR3."
PR30, running from Caguas to Humacao through Gurabo, Juncos, and Las Piedras, isnt really an expressway. Nonetheless, several of the municipalities have made improvements to it.
No more expressways
According to Fagundo, PR10, PR22, PR30, PR52, PR53, and PR66 are the only major highways Puerto Rico should have. "All these projects help, and it is very important they get done, but we must stop investing in more new expressways," he said. "From now on, we should invest in mass transit."
Fagundo said the Urban Train is a good start because it covers the San Juan metro area, which has the largest concentration of people in Puerto Rico. "To me, the Urban Train is the biggest thing. We have the mother of all trains, which should last us 60, 70, 75 years without any problems," he said.
Right now, the Urban Trains route is L-shaped, running between Bayamon (west) and Santurce (north). As Fagundo recalled, however, former Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin said in the 1950s that the train route should resemble an X, extending in every direction of the four cardinal points. "The next phases planned will take the Urban Train east to Carolina and south to Caguas, completing in a symbolic way Muñoz Marins famous X," said Fagundo.
The first phase of the Urban Train, from Bayamon to Santurce, cost $2.25 billion to build. Fagundo estimates extending the train to Carolina will cost $1 billion. Of that amount, he said, the federal government will chip in $457 million. The allocation is included in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which is pending approval in the U.S. Congress.
"Once the federal legislation is approved, which will probably be next year, we could start construction even if we dont have the money," said Fagundo. "I could go to the Government Development Bank and get a loan against the appropriation until I receive the money. The blueprints are ready."
Taking the Urban Train to Carolina will involve extending the tunnel beneath Del Pilar School in Rio Piedras to the Veterans Monument on 65th Infantry Avenue. From there, the train would continue to Roberto Clemente Stadium via an elevated guideway along 65th Infantry Avenues median. There would be eight stations on the route.
The extension to Caguas would be a little different, as Mayor Willie Miranda Marin wants to use local funds. It would be a light-rail system, which is cheaper. Miranda Marin already has a contract with French firm Semaly to build it (CB April 8). Fagundo is confident Miranda Marin will secure the $282 million financing needed to get the project rolling.
"The train to Caguas would start in Cupey and reach PR52 via an elevated guideway. From there, it would continue at ground level to Las Catalinas Mall along the expressways median. Some 10 bridges would have to be built along the expressways median to make room for the train. No stops are planned, although a station in Montehiedra might be a possibility," said Fagundo.
The HTA owns the rights of way on both projects and the preliminary designs are done; the final designs should be ready in a year.
"Its a matter of starting the projects. With luck, we can have both trains operational in five years," said Fagundo.
An islandwide train?
Although there has been talk of taking the Urban Train to the rest of the island, creating an islandwide train like the one Puerto Rico had in the first half of the 20th century, Fagundo said the costs and logistics of the proposal should be considered carefully.
"I think its extremely important to complete a mass-transit system around the island," he said. "Nevertheless, the trains to Carolina and Caguas will cost $40 million per kilometer, while the cost of the Urban Train from Bayamon to Santurce, including its underground tunnel in Rio Piedras, was $180 million per kilometer."
Fagundo said DTOP has already begun a feasibility study on creating a mass-transportation hub in the west to connect Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo, Mayaguez, and the mountain region. It would be similar to what is being done in the San Juan metro area with the Integrated Transportation Alternative (ATI by its Spanish acronym), which integrates the Urban Train, the Metropolitan Bus Authority (AMA by its Spanish acronym), the Metrobus, Aquaexpreso, and private carriers (publicos).
"It would be useless to take the Urban Train to Mayaguez, Ponce, or Arecibo if theres no integrated mass-transit network in those regions," said Fagundo. "When the integrated regional networks are in place, then it would make sense to connect the regions with a train."
Fagundo believes ATI has succeeded at providing a regional mass-transit network in the San Juan metro area (Bayamon, Guaynabo, San Juan, Carolina, and Caguas). Theoretically, he said, it should be easy for a person who lives in a barrio or remote sector of Carolina to visit a barrio in Bayamon using ATI.
"Where the Urban Train and AMA service ends, the public carriers take over with a fixed and reliable schedule and a fleet of clean, well-maintained, air-conditioned vans," said Fagundo. "The Urban Trains $1.50 fare will include a free transfer to an AMA bus within a two-hour time frame."
The main users of the Urban Train are expected to be children up to 18 years of age (who dont have a drivers license or dont own a vehicle) and adults over age 60 (who may already be using mass transportation or no longer drive). The biggest challenge will be convincing those between the ages of 19 and 59 to use the systemwhen it finally starts rolling.
Fagundo said DTOP and the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) have agreed not to announce any start date until they are absolutely certain the Urban Train is ready to go.
"The FTA will penalize us if we talk about an inaugural date for the Urban Train. I and HTA Executive Director Jack Allison feel the project has let everybody down with the numerous false starts," said Fagundo. "We depend on certain people, most of all Siemens, to get the Urban Train off to a good start. I genuinely feel, however, that we are very close and that the public will be able to enjoy the Urban Train very soon."
Rossello: islandwide train is ambitious, but viable
If elected governor in November, New Progressive Party candidate Pedro Rossello hopes to build a modern, islandwide rail system in addition to the Urban Train.
The system, "Tren todo Puerto Rico" (All Puerto Rico Train), would use the existing infrastructure in an efficient, environmentally safe manner and would have two main lines. Line 1 would operate in the north and Line 2 in the south. Each would be divided into two segments: east and west.
"This rail system will be complemented by 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. The system is part of Rossellos far-reaching plan to develop Puerto Ricos 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 train 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. "Our proposal will reduce in a balanced fashion the travel time between destinations, the operational cost of the road network, and the environmental impact that land transportation entails."
Other objectives of Rossellos 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 Transportations 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 he said was halted during the current administration; the completion of PR10 between Adjuntas and Utuado; and the completion of Route 66 (aka the Eastern Corridor), which he said also was 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 revive the Metropolitan Bus Authority in order to transport 200,000 passengers daily," said Rossello.
Governments decision to kick-start the bulk of infrastructure projects this year is putting a severe strain on contractors
If you are one of the thousands of drivers who complain about the many road projects exacerbating the traffic problems, know that contractors arent entirely to blame, although they are feeling the heat as well.
Jorge Jose Fuentes, outgoing president of the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), said the construction industry came to a screeching halt during the first three years of the Calderon administration, forcing many construction companies to downsize, laying off many skilled workers, or go out of business.
"It is normal for an administration to release a larger number of public-sector projects during its last year, but the Calderon administration released an unusually high number this year. This created a backlog, as our smaller construction industry didnt have enough skilled laborers to handle them," said Fuentes.
Numerous bids for public-works projects havent been awarded because construction companies have maxed out their bonding capacity and cant take on any more projects.
"The construction industry cant handle the $7.9 billion in capital investment, the largest ever [in Puerto Rico], that this administration is undertaking," said Fernando Fagundo, secretary of the Department of Transportation & Public Works. "There simply arent enough skilled laborers. In fact, we have abandoned or cancelled many bids, because the larger construction companies have exceeded their bonding capacity and the smaller ones just dont have the personnel."
Fagundo said the public infrastructure projects vary in size. There are 2,000 to 3,000most related to the Special Communities Programcosting in the range of $400,000 to $500,000 and several others requiring major investments of $30 million to $100 million.
"There is the possibility that many public-sector projects will not be done, something Ive never seen before," said Fagundo.
HTA's Major Metro-Area Projects Under Construction
As of July 2004
Project: Municipality / Investment / Construction Start / Scheduled Completion / Contractor
Dos Hermanos Bridge Replacement: San Juan / $21,496,707 / July 03 / Dec. 05 / LPC & D Inc.
Rio Hondo Avenue--Phase II: Bayamon / $39,668,739 / Oct. 00 / Nov. 04 / Rio Construction
Improvements to PR18 & PR22 Intersection (Several Projects): San Juan / $6,984,071 / April 02 / Oct. 04 / Las Piedras Construction
$13,563,270 / Aug. 02 / Oct. 04 / Del Valle Group
$9,873,007 / Dec. 02 / Feb. 05 / Rio Construction
$5,356,763 / Oct. 03 / Feb. 05 / RBR Construction
Improvements to PR2 & Martinez Nadal Expressway IntersectionCaparra: Guaynabo / $9,133,497 / Aug. 02 / May 05 / Rio Construction
Improvements to PR181 & PR3 Intersection: San Juan / $33,587,181 / Jan. 02 / May 05 / Las Piedras Construction
Replacement of Esteves Bridge-- Puerta de Tierra: San Juan / $12,185,436 / Sept. 02 / May 05 / Constructora Santiago
Improvements to PR1 & PR20 Intersection: Guaynabo / $7,433,923 / Oct. 02 / Sept. 04 / Constructora RVD
Improvements to Baldorioty de Castro Expressway: San Juan / $19,576,815 / Oct. 03 / May 05 / Del Valle Group
Improvements to Kennedy Avenue from Bechara to Constitution Bridge: San Juan / $5,616,856 / April 02 / Oct. 04 / Constructora Fortis
$5,930,446 / April 02 / Aug. 04
Improvements to Areas Surrounding Urban Train station at UPR-Rio Piedras:
San Juan / $7,298,692 / Sept. 03 / May 05 / CC Construction Corp.
Improvements to Access Areas of Urban Train Station at Martinez Nadal Expressway: San Juan / $13,417,795 / April 04 / March 06 / Constructora Santiago
Improvements to Areas Surrounding Urban Train Station at Sagrado Corazon University: San Juan / $5,014,911 / Aug. 03 / Aug. 05 / Unique Builders
Construction of PR66 (Eastern Corridor)--Carolina to Canovanas--Several Projects: Carolina / $27,350,002 / Aug. 03 / Nov. 04 / Del Valle Group
$17,019,955 / Oct. 03 / Feb. 05 / Ferrovial Agroman SA
$25,505,962 / June 03 / Dec. 04 / Las Piedras Construction
$21,043,755 / Sept. 03 / Nov. 04 / Ferrovial Agroman SA
$22,954,132 / Aug. 03 / Feb. 05 / Las Piedras Construction
$25,287,022 / June 03 / Dec. 04 / Las Piedras Construction
$33,513,506 / Aug. 03 / April 05 / Constructora Santiago
$870,248 / July 03 / Dec. 05 / Landscape Contractors
Total Investment: $389,682,691
Source: P.R. Highway & Transportation Authority
New-Auto Sales in Puerto Rico
Source: Plaza Motors Corp.s Puerto Rico Retail Automobile Sales Report
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.