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PUERTO RICO REPORT
The Small Victims of Big Political Fights
by Lance Oliver
October 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled, according to the
In Puerto Rico, among the fighting elephants these days are
Gov. Pedro Rosselló, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, San
Juan Mayor Sila Calderón, and, naturally, the two major
There are lots of people playing the role of grass. Owners
of small shops in the Condado section of San Juan. People unfortunate
enough to have to travel along the northeast coast of the island.
Most of all, as usual, taxpayers.
In recent weeks, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court has halted two
major projects being undertaken by the Rosselló administration:
the demolition of the Condado Trio properties in the heart of
that tourism district; and Route 66, the toll road intended to
bypass the worst of the congestion and blight called Highway 3
that links San Juan and Fajardo.
The Condado Trio standoff is an example of how partisan politics
hurts Puerto Rico in the pocketbook. The Rosselló administration
wants to do something with prime real estate that isn't carrying
its weight. As mayor of San Juan, Sila Calderón wants to
have a say in what happens in her city. So far, understandable.
The city puts forth a proposal, but of course the Rosselló
administration cannot accept it. That would be tantamount to admitting
that an opponent can actually do something right. So the government
selects a questionable consortium to do the project. Secrecy shrouds
the reasons for the selection and little or no progress is made
even after more than a year has passed.
Meanwhile, Calderón cannot admit that the proposal accepted
by the Rosselló administration has merit because, again,
that would mean admitting that an opponent can actually do something
right. No way can that precedent be set. So off to court we go.
After months of deliberation, the Supreme Court halts the project,
not that there was much to be halted, as far as the already despondent
business owners in the area could see. They are the ones who suffer
most directly, but taxpayers also lose because costs keep adding
up while the equipment is idle.
Tourists walking down Ashford Avenue, perhaps for the first
time, on a warm Puerto Rico night, suddenly come to a dark section
of street lined with a temporary construction wall, behind which
sits a building that is empty and appears to be abandoned. Maybe
it's best to turn back and go to the hotel. Certainly, the scene
doesn't entice them to wander further, maybe stop into one of
the little shops up ahead.
Thanks to the political process, this goes on for years, bleeding
local merchants, disenchanting visitors to the Island of Enchantment
and therefore affecting the tourism industry as they go home and
give unenthusiastic reports to neighbors or just decide themselves
to go somewhere else next time.
This almost unavoidable clash, in which one party is virtually
obligated to oppose whatever the other proposes, only gives the
administration more reason to try to "fast-track" every
undertaking. The idea is to get as much work done as possible
before the inevitable lawsuit. That way, in addition to arguing
the merits of the project, the government can also claim "it's
too late to stop now, we've already spent millions on this."
The administration used a different version of that argument
when the Supreme Court stopped the Route 66 project. Environmental
groups oppose the project and were successful in getting the Supreme
Court to halt it. In appealing that ruling, the government said
that at this point more environmental damage would be done by
halting the project, because land already churned up by the bulldozers
Between the arrogance of an administration that believes nobody
else knows what's good for Puerto Rico and the automatic, knee-jerk
response of the political opposition, ordinary people have lost
faith in these major public works projects.
Most people don't think new highways are really going to help.
Most think the Superaqueduct isn't going to improve San Juan's
water supply (skepticism that may be warranted, since this project
just connects two distant neglected reservoirs to San Juan's neglected
water system). Most people don't think the Urban Train will be
anything more than a boondoggle, though it at least has the potential
to help the city.
People have lost faith in these projects because they recognize
that the political process has overtaken the public interest and
the elephants have forgotten about the grass.
That should be of interest to two people running for governor,
one of whom stakes his reputation on major public works projects
he has done for Puerto Rico and another who is doing her best
to play the role of obstructionist on the projects that don't
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email