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Jam Buster!

Record $5.5 billion invested in transportation infrastructure means less driving frustrations


October 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Despite a 50% increase in traffic across metropolitan area roadways, improvements by the DTPW have shaved time spent in traffic by 40%

Sergio Gonzalez, secretary of Transportation and Public Works, is flying high. Not just in his helicopter, from project to project to project, but also because of a record $5.5 billion investment in transportation infrastructure over eight years, which he says has yielded more efficient roadways throughout Puerto Rico.

"That’s nearly double the investment during the prior 15 years," said Gonzalez, in an exclusive interview with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. "That investment hasn’t just been large, it has been well planned, well executed and effective."

This investment, which runs through the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, 2001, means people are wasting less time in the all-too-common "tapones" — traffic jams — and reaching their destinations faster. Despite a 50% increase in traffic since 1993, improvements to roadways and new highways have helped cut back the time it takes people to get from point to point by 40%, according to Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTPW) studies.

This year alone, the department is well on schedule to spend almost $1 billion in highway improvement projects. In recent weeks, the agency inaugurated the $30 million PR-9 east-west expressway in Ponce; placed the first stone for the PR-100 extension in El Combate, Boqueron, to eliminate the traffic jams of people going to the beach; and inaugurated the $105 million PR-10 segment from Adjuntas to Ponce, turning the hour-long distance between the two points into a 15-minute trip.

"The temperature can drop about 12 degrees between Ponce and Adjuntas," Gonzalez said. "So now, when it’s 80 degrees in Ponce you can get in the car and travel to Adjuntas in 15 minutes and experience a cooler 68 degrees."

These alterations to facilitate the flow of traffic are key when you consider that by the year 2020, the average number of trips made by metropolitan region residents will skyrocket 41% from the current 3.2 million daily trips to 4.5 million daily trips, Gonzalez said. The greater metropolitan region includes 13 municipalities from Naranjito to Rio Grande.

"What we need to understand is that if this administration hadn’t adopted an aggressive multi-modal integrated transportation system, we would have a completely grid-locked city right now," the DTPW chief said. "And despite our aggressive plan, we still have traffic congestion during rush hours. It’s been reduced, but we still have congestion."

Multi-modal means creating an integrated network of different transportation alternatives — private cars, public buses, "publicos" (shared cars), and the upcoming Urban Train — that feed each other to alleviate congestion. The goal is to have people use their cars to come from less populated areas into the city through the expressways, and then utilize buses, publicos and the train to move within the more densely packed areas.

The $1.6 billion Urban Train, slated to begin operations in summer 2002, has four times the capacity of the Buchanan Toll Plaza on Highway 22. This means that the rail system, which is 73% completed, will move the same amount of people as four expressways built to come right into the San Juan metropolitan area. However, four expressways coming into the San Juan area would unravel the city’s fiber, Gonzalez said.

"In dense areas, which are the destination of all those people coming from peripheral areas, we need a system capable of receiving that flux and distributing it through the dense area without harming the urban context," he said. "That’s the role of the Urban Train."

Gonzalez, who was executive director of the Highways and Transportation Authority (HTA) under the seven-year tenure of former DTPW Secretary Carlos Pesquera, credits the former secretary with the vision to plan and push all these projects simultaneously all over the island. That vision included a decision not to pit buses versus the train versus cars.

"That concept that cars dominate, or that buses dominate, or the train dominates, which is part of our historical process, is wrong," he said. "None of those individually solved the problem. An integrated concept is the solution to our urban transportation problem."

An integrated vision and its multi-modal approach to transportation have placed Puerto Rico at the forefront of both the U.S. and other countries, according to Gonzalez. And this is not evidenced only by improvements in public bus services and the Urban Train, but in the design and development of roads around and across the island.

"In the past eight years, we improved transportation to the point that we’ve achieved unprecedented records and benefits," Gonzalez said. "I don’t think there are many places that have reached the same achievements in land transportation that we have."

Strategic network

Puerto Rico, with 2 million cars, has 14,695 miles of roads. The vast majority of those, 10,199 miles, or 70%, are municipal. This is followed by a system of state roads, including 2,993 miles of tertiary, 911 miles of secondary and 592 miles of primary roads, such as highways and expressways.

The overwhelming majority of projects aimed at revamping the island’s strategic network — which provides access around the island and from north to south points — have been finished, including improvements to Highways 2, 3, 22, 26, 30 and 52, Gonzalez said.

"Most of those roads were not completed in 1993," he said. "We completed the De Diego Expressway [Highway 22]; we eliminated the traffic congestion in Manati and Vega Baja, which was untenable and represented about a 30-minute delay in rush hour."

Highway 53 has been finished from Fajardo to Yabucoa; the Ponce bypass — which takes non-local traffic out of the town center — also has been completed; and Highway 10 from Arecibo to Utuado reduced the travel time between those two towns by 50%.

"We widened Highway 2 from Aguadilla to Mayaguez and rehabilitated Highway 2 completely from Mayaguez to Ponce," Gonzalez said. "We also completely rehabilitated the Las Americas Expressway [Highway 18]."

One route that has not been finished is Route 66, which was aimed at providing a west-east alternative to the heavily congested Highway 3. Route 66 construction was paralyzed after the Supreme Court ruled that environmental documents submitted by the DTPW were insufficient to develop the project.

"Stopping the route, including the resulting legal claims could reach a cost of $100 million," said Gonzalez, adding that they expect to fulfill the Supreme Court’s demands next year and continue building the highway.

Because all the construction permits are still in effect, the goal is to turn in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that was prepared in 1997 with a few modifications in the hopes that the Supreme Court will green light the project.

The road, which was 40% completed when it was halted, had an original price tag of $125 million. Gonzalez said there is no alternative to Route 66 since the alignment chosen was the one representing the least environmental impact, the bridges were made to have the least possible impact on the rivers, and Highway 3 can’t be converted into an expressway.

"We studied all the alternatives and it was public servants at the DTPW from all political ideologies who pushed this project forward," said Gonzalez, who worked as a consultant for the department tunder the prior Popular Democratic Party (PDP) administration.

Kennedy, De Diego, Baldorioty

The $23.3 million conversion of Kennedy Avenue to an expressway is another recently inaugurated project that Gonzalez pointed out as being successful in trimming travel time for metropolitan area drivers.

Although traffic on the avenue increased by 82% from 16,500 cars in 1997 to about 30,000 cars nowadays, the time it takes to travel on the avenue toward San Juan decreased as much as 62% from 40 minutes to 15 minutes during the morning rush hour.

"At this time, there is no traffic congestion on the Kennedy Expressway at any time of the day," Gonzalez said, adding that people who opt for Kennedy over the De Diego Expressway going to Hato Rey save 20 minutes, 15 minutes if going to San Juan, and 10 minutes if going to Santurce.

Despite these advances, Gonzalez says word of mouth still has not been sufficient to alert drivers that Kennedy Avenue is no longer a no-man’s-land of traffic congestion. To help along, the agency is utilizing electronic signs to tell drivers to use Kennedy as an alternative.

Another roadway that is currently undergoing improvements is the De Diego Expressway, which will take three years to finish. The first phase of the revamping ended a month ago and it included a reversible lane from PR-5 in Rio Hondo to the Buchanan Toll Plaza.

"The important thing is that just with the reversible lane, there are savings of between 15 to 20 minutes in the morning, and from 20 to 30 minutes in the afternoon," Gonzalez said. "This isn’t based on estimates. We’ve done the studies with vehicles that take time systematically."

The reformed De Diego Expressway will eventually reach Bayamon with four lanes in each direction and two reversible lanes in the middle, so that six lanes are available at peak hours in the heaviest traveled direction. Long bottlenecks are created at the Buchanan Toll Plaza because traffic in that area has risen by 30% from 115,000 vehicles daily in 1993, to about 150,000 nowadays.

"With these improvements we should be able to completely alleviate congestion in the De Diego Expressway," Gonzalez said. "Even with the first phase, which is just a construction phase to expand the sides of the expressway, we’ve already reaped some benefits."

The DTPW secretary points to the Baldorioty de Castro Expressway as the best example of how a systematic and well-researched approach to easing traffic congestion can net significant advantages.

Whereas the prior administration stopped at making two elevated bypasses on the avenue, which did not eradicate the traffic jams, the DTPW decided to develop the entire corridor. Gonzalez, who was a consultant on that bypass project, said the technical group warned the PDP administration that the one-shot approach would not work, but they were overridden.

"One of the things we said when we arrived is: ‘We’re going to solve the problem in Baldorioty,’" Gonzalez said. "All the technicians joined to make it happen."

A complex project that involved improvements near the Los Angeles development, the closing off of intersections along the route, and major works to make the entrance to the airport less cumbersome, Baldorioty de Castro Expressway is still a work in progress.

"It’s not a question of improving Baldorioty and then forgetting about it," Gonzalez said. "We measure it continually and we make adjustments based on a more scientific approach to attacking congestion."

For one, the department is aware that congestion still occurs at the Minillas Tunnel, when cars try to access the expressway. Designs are already in the pipeline and the improvement project is to be placed up for bid this year and finished in 18 months. "When we arrived, the Baldorioty was still a six-lane avenue. Today, it’s an eight-lane expressway. That’s a dramatic change."

Public transportation

Another dramatic improvement that Gonzalez points to is the Metropolitan Bus Authority (AMA for its Spanish initials), which had 60,000 daily passengers in 1995 and now boasts up to 135,000 daily passengers — an increase of 125%.

"We used the same method that we used within the department, of mixing people who’d worked at the agency for a long time with new people and we developed a plan to bring AMA into the 21st century," Gonzalez said, adding that this included the restructuring of routes, an increase in the frequency of bus schedules, and an image change.

Healthy competition with the privately run Metrobus also contributed to give AMA the boost it needed, Gonzalez acknowledged. And while Metrobus drivers recently went on strike, AMA has continued providing its services, somewhat softening the effects of the labor protest at its private counterpart.

"We’ve developed a plan, including the publicos and the AMA and we’ve been able to offer services, without impinging on the Metrobus route, so that the strike’s impact has been minimal," Gonzalez said.

The master plan

Also to minimize traffic congestion on an island where there are more cars everyday, the agency has been developing a master plan for an alternate north-south expressway that will involve the Martinez Nadal Expressy (Highway 20), improvements to Highway 1 to Caguas, an intersection in Caparra that is slated to begin construction next year, and the Kennedy Expressway. The total cost of this alternative will be about $200 million and all its projects should be completed by 2008, Gonzalez said.

The Caparra intersection, which was built back when the Martinez Nadal Expressway was a two-lane highway, will cost about $50 million and will help ease the congestion that currently exists as cars feed from Martinez Nadal into Kennedy Avenue, and vice versa. That intersection also includes the loop to and from Roosevelt Avenue, which also currently experiences back ups, Gonzalez said.

Also in the development stage is a $50 million "collector distributor" project on the Las Americas Expressway (PR-18), which is scheduled to begin construction in 2001. This project is aimed at improving access to Hato Rey from the expressway since 40% of the trips coming on PR-18 have Hato Rey as their final destination, Gonzalez said.

As it is, new highways and road improvements have cut down traveling time between the west and east coasts of the island, Mayaguez to Fajardo, from a whopping four hours to about 2.5 hours nowadays, the DTPW said. And more than 20 local bypasses have been completed, or are in the works, throughout the island to ease traffic in municipalities such as Ciales, Orocovis, Morovis, Barranquitas, Santa Isabel, Guayama, Juncos, Las Piedras and Gurabo, among others.

"What we’re doing is divide and conquer," Gonzalez explained, referring to the way in which they have worked to conquer traffic congestion. "We’re dividing in two ways. First, by improving mass transportation so people have alternatives and by also providing alternatives in highways."

Choosing to promote a multi-modal integrated transportation system, that balances the need for expressways, public transportation and private automobiles, has helped lead the agency to record-breaking achievements, according to Transportation and Public Works Secretary Sergio Gonzalez.

By 2008, a $200 million alternate expressway that connects a number of existing highways with others that are to be improved will facilitate north-south access on the island and help reduce traveling time as well, says Gonzalez.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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