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Puerto Rico Trains Hopes On Rail Line

by Iván Román

September 3, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

PR TRAFFICPHOTO CAPTION Rising rails. Work on the Tren Urbano, an 11-mile heavy-rail system which is being paid for with Puerto Rican money from taxes, bonds or fees, proceeds in Bayamon, outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Frank Rivera/Orlando Sentinel)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The worst traffic in the United States is not in Los Angeles. Not in New York City. Not in Atlanta.

It`s in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

There is more than one vehicle for every two people in Puerto Rico, the most densely populated U.S. state or territory aside from Washington, D.C. More than a third of the island`s 4 million people live in the San Juan metropolitan area, and more than half work there.

But when it comes to mass transit, San Juan is stuck in the 1960s.

Now, in an attempt to catch up, beams are going up and tracks are being laid for Tren Urbano, or Urban Train, an 11-mile heavy-rail system that will link key business, government, educational and medical centers in San Juan. Expected to carry about 115,000 people a day when it opens in May 2002, it is considered one of the most cost-effective U.S. mass-transit projects being built right now.

That`s little solace in this contentious election year to those who worry the $1.7 billion price tag, mostly coming from local funds, is sinking Puerto Rico into too much debt. But backers of the island`s largest and most ambitious infrastructure project in modern history say it has the potential to give San Juan even more cosmopolitan flavor and change the way people live.

"We`re 35 years behind in this, and we have this horrible urban sprawl and no balance between the city and the suburbs because this wasn`t done in time," said Transportation and Public Works Secretary Sergio Gonzalez. "In essence, we`re dramatically improving access in a way that also makes it compatible with more of a pedestrian and citylike lifestyle."

As Puerto Rico went from an agricultural to an industrial and service economy during the past 40 years, cars not only became more attainable, but also necessary. Mimicking U.S.-style development, many people abandoned urban centers, particularly San Juan, as Puerto Rico built more roads per square mile than most places in the world.

For a small Caribbean island with more vehicles per capita than stateside, the results are devastating. And commuters who deal with San Juan`s maddening gridlock are paying the price.

Traffic jams that turn three- and four-lane expressways in one direction into virtual parking lots for miles have become an everyday occurrence. The lion`s share of the 4.5 million daily trips that cars, vans and tanker trucks make in the metro area head in and out of the capital, a city half the 100-square-mile area of Orlando and sitting on the Atlantic Ocean.

During rush hours -- which get longer every year -- many of the 1.5 million-plus people packed into San Juan and the surrounding 14 cities and towns that feed into it fight their way into the capital to work. To visualize this kind of congestion in Central Florida, think of squeezing four times as many people into Orange County, then having most of them flock to an area half the size of the city of Orlando to work.

And that`s not counting the growing number of people in other outlying cities and towns who spend up to three or four hours a day in a draining commute.

"San Juan is one of the, if not the, most congested places in the United States," said Susan Schruth, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration in Atlanta, which is putting up $307 million of the money to build and operate the Tren Urbano. "It`s a good investment from the federal perspective. It will carry a lot of people."

The train, which during peak times could carry up to 40,000 passengers an hour, will start southwest of San Juan in the center of the booming city of Bayamon. It will travel through parking lots, by a mall and a stadium and coliseum, then snake through residential suburbs to the south during the morning commute.

Plans call for it to head into the island`s premier medical complex before stopping at the University of Puerto Rico`s main campus in Rio Piedras, in the southern part of San Juan. The train will zip through the heart of the Hato Rey financial district and end at Sacred Heart University at the edge of San Juan`s deteriorated commercial and residential hub of Santurce.

All 16 stations will be elevated or close to ground level except for two underground stations in Rio Piedras, where the university is. If local officials have their way, future extensions will speed below government and retail centers in Santurce to the commercial and tourist hub of Old San Juan, and east to Luis Munoz Marin International Airport and the bustling city of Carolina.

With more buses and public vans that will connect to it, government planners see the train as the key to reshaping the city. Officials hope the train`s convenience, coupled with commuter fatigue, will bring people back to live, work and play in ailing urban centers and allow even more apartments and offices to be built in and around the financial district nearby.

Two more underground stations -- now on the books for the second stage of the project -- would bring the train into the heart of the deteriorated Santurce, once San Juan`s retail and social center until it fell victim to suburban sprawl starting in the 1970s and `80s.

Once the train starts zipping by under his travel agency in Rio Piedras, Antonio de la Cruz hopes the new dry cleaners, stores and renovated buildings that come with it will breathe life into the working-class and student-filled urban hub that has long lost it luster.

"I see the Tren Urbano as the salvation for Rio Piedras, to become the commercial center it once was," said de la Cruz, past president of the Rio Piedras Businesspersons, Professionals and Residents Association, who also owns a travel agency in Orlando. "We`re putting up with the cost, closed streets and problems having to do with construction now, because we have lots of hope it will make it all better."

Others, not so generous, wonder whether the $1.7 billion price tag is too much.

Island residents are paying for most of it -- $962 million during the next 35 years -- through tolls, gas taxes and other fees, and a $300 million low-cost federal loan.

The rest comes from Washington: a $307 million grant and another $400 million in federal highway and transit funds that local authorities earmarked for the train. The grant makes up just 25 percent of the original $1.2 billion cost estimate, much less than the typical 50 percent to 80 percent the federal government ponies up for new projects like these.

The local deep pockets have turned out to be a good thing in Washington`s eyes. They helped calm Congress` fears last spring over spiraling costs of transit projects, such as Boston`s infamous "Big Dig" for a new tunnel and San Francisco`s rapid-transit extension to the airport.

Local officials convinced Congress that adding two more stations, 10 more train cars and a series of improvements -- for a cost increase of 39 percent, from $1.2 billion to $1.67 billion -- was justified.

And just as in some parts of Florida, the construction boom spurred by mega projects -- including a 50-mile water pipeline and a new coliseum complex -- is creating a shortage of skilled workers, delaying the project and making it more expensive.

"The local officials have told us Tren Urbano is the No. 1 priority, and they are willing to put into it the money that it needs," said Phyllis Scheinberg, associate director for transportation issues at the U.S. General Accounting Office, who audited the rail line project. "But this is something that needs to be continually watched. The larger the project is, there is more room for cost and scheduling increases and for more things to go wrong."

Critics don`t want anything to go wrong, but they worry that it`s helping drive up Puerto Rico`s $22.7 billion public debt. Government officials insist the island`s thriving economy allows for such a debt, but some are not so convinced.

"It may not be a big problem now because Puerto Rico has good credit and they keep issuing more bonds, but how far do we go?" said Jose Ortiz Daliot, a Senate candidate for the opposition Popular Democratic Party. "We have to pay that back and at some point, you have to draw the line. The train doesn`t need to be luxurious. It needs to be functional."

Carlos Pesquera, the former transportation head who oversaw all major infrastructure projects until he stepped down last year to run for governor for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, dismisses the criticism as cheap politics during an election year.

He considers the train his baby, using it as an ace on the campaign trail and rankling transportation officials from the previous administration when the project was first conceived and approved in the early 1990s. When workers unloaded the first two train cars shipped from Sacramento, Calif., at the San Juan piers last February, he wrote "Carlos Pesquera 2000" with his finger in the layer of dust covering them. Then he posed for pictures.

"We`re not just spending money. In Puerto Rico, we`re investing," Pesquera said. "We`re investing in a better future and a better quality of life."

It`s hard to know whether train passengers-to-be will add that into the boiling stew of corruption scandals, job concerns, and party loyalties that go into figuring out who they`ll vote for Nov. 7. Looking past the election, whoever wins will have to work hard to make the train useful and convince people in this car-driven culture to leave their wheels at home.

Lizzie Rivera, one of thousands who showed up recently to tour the train cars amid live music and a carnival atmosphere, doesn`t think it will be a really hard sell.

"You`ll see that when it starts working, people will use it," said Rivera, 25, an executive secretary looking forward to cutting down her current two-hour one-way commute to 40 minutes. "Just to save gas, get there faster, and not be totally stressed out when you get to the office or get home, it`s worth it."

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