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Dow Jones International News

Commuter Train Aims To Relieve Puerto Rico Traffic Snags

19 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP)--Puerto Rico inaugurated its long awaited commuter rail service Sunday with officials offering free service for the first few weeks.

Dozens of passengers boarded the Tren Urbano, or the Urban Train, which runs between the capital of San Juan and suburban Bayamon.

The single-route service is the first of its kind in the Caribbean and is designed to unclog highways on the island, which has one of the highest rates of vehicles per capita in the world.

"The reality is we don't have another alternative," Transportation Secretary Fernando Fagundo said in a TV interview with Channel 4 news during a train ride. "We have 2.5 million automobiles, and they are being sold at a rate of 10,000 to 12,000 a month in Puerto Rico. If we continue on this track, in 10 years it won't be worth it to have a car because you won't be able to move."

But some have said 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.

Officials said they will begin charging the $1.50 single fare, which also includes a connecting bus ride, sometime next month.

The train runs 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) from the downtown Santurce neighborhood, which is 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 snakes 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.

The train was scheduled to open in 2001, but has been plagued by construction delays, safety problems and rising costs. The price tag has nearly doubled from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion, with the U.S. government paying about 40%.

Puerto Rico has long been without train service. In the early 1900s, there were trains and trolleys, but tracks 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.

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