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The Full Costs Of A Public Works Fiasco

by Lance Oliver

April 28, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Now that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court has halted the Route 66 highway project, which would have linked San Juan with the northeastern part of the island, we can begin to total up the cost of this fiasco.

By pointing out the egregious errors in the Environmental Impact Statement process of the administration of Gov. Pedro Rosselló, the court reached a point where it saw no alternative but to halt the work. This is a costly development on many levels, some of them obvious, some not so clear but even larger in their impact.

The most obvious cost is the loss of the $52.4 million already paid to contractors for work done on the road, including an expensive bridge. That comes to better than $13 for each man, woman and child in Puerto Rico, or about $58 out of each tax return filed this year.

That money has been spent to tear up the earth for a road that now will never be built and never be used. It’s one thing to put up with some temporary environmental damage in exchange for a long-term benefit, but now Puerto Rico has the damage without the benefit.

But that obvious cost is just the beginning. What about the hidden costs?

There is the ongoing cost of wasted time and fuel for those who travel the increasingly dense northeastern corridor between San Juan and Fajardo. How do you add up the gallons of gasoline wasted as commuters sit in traffic? What is the cost in human terms when a father or mother is delayed in getting home to his or her family?

But there’s more, much more.

What about the people who had their property expropriated for the good of a project that was supposed to be of public benefit?

Maybe most costly of all is the damage done to Puerto Rico’s image. Resort developments along the northeast coast were counting on the new road. The government said it would happen. Now it isn’t happening.

There is no way to quantify how much that hurts. Will some developer or hotel chain decide to look elsewhere because Puerto Rico has shown itself so incapable of managing its growth, in the first place, and then being able to agree on new public works projects to respond to the ugly, unplanned sprawl of its principal metropolitan area? What might that image cost Puerto Ricans in terms of jobs and economic impact?

Of course the main game now is pinning the blame on the opponent. Carlos Pesquera, the secretary of transportation and public works during the planning stages of the project, and now the New Progressive Party’s candidate for governor, said the court ruling was a politically motivated decision and made Puerto Rico look like a Third World country.

There may be political motivation involved in the court’s ruling, and he’s definitely right about the image projected. But he and Gov. Pedro Rosselló share a big part of the blame for the Third World image.

The arrogance of the Rosselló administration comes back to haunt us all again. His energy as a governor has been impressive, his aspirations for improving the island admirable. His response to disagreement has been horrendous.

Route 66 is another example. When its first Environmental Impact Statement was rejected, the administration monkeyed with the process, splitting the road into two sections for administrative purposes. The government did not seriously look at alternatives, which is one of the purposes of an environmental impact statement — to examine various options and assess the impacts of each.

Instead, just as it did with the North Coast Superaqueduct, the administration subverted the process and charged ahead, all in the name of "fast-track" construction and doing what’s right.

Anyone who disagrees is politically motivated and therefore dismissed.

End of story.

Except it’s not the end, because we have a hurriedly built Superaqueduct that leaks, an Urban Train likely to go 100% over budget and a huge, ugly gash in the northeast damaging the environment.

Pesquera’s right. It does look Third World.

Puerto Rico looks that way every time a governor acts in autocratic style and tries to circumvent laws and regulations instead of doing things right and following them. Rosselló has done so more than once and so have other governors before him.

If Pesquera somehow manages to overcome fiascoes like Route 66 and get elected governor, the question will be what lesson he has learned from this clash and whether he will play the role of a caudillo, like his predecessors, or whether he will choose a new style and improve Puerto Rico in substance and image.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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