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Puerto Rico's Light Rail Starts Regular Runs
By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer
June 7, 2005
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Waiting at the gleaming new station for her ride to work on Monday, Mildred González said she didn't miss the traffic.
"There are no tapones," said the radiology technician, using the local word for traffic jam as she relaxed at the elevated terminal near the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón. "There are no lights. This is much faster, much more reliable . . . I love it."
Puerto Rico's train has arrived. Three and a half years late and nearly $900 million over budget projections, the Tren Urbano began regular service Monday, carrying paying passengers along 10 miles of track connecting the western suburbs of Bayamón and Guaynabo with the Santurce section of San Juan.
Decades in the planning and years in the building, the elevated Urban Train is intended to cut pollution and slow the growth of traffic in San Juan, one of the most densely traveled cities in the world. It also is meant to spur new residential, business and government development around each of 16 new stations.
"This is a very important day for Puerto Rico," said Gabriel Alcaraz, secretary of transportation and public works in this Caribbean U.S. territory. By the end of 2008, he is planning to have "a pathway full of projects that will basically redefine the way we develop San Juan."
Talked about since the 1970s, the Tren Urbano becomes the first rail system in Puerto Rico since the last run in 1953 of the storied coastal train that once connected San Juan with the southern city of Ponce. It is the first metropolitan rail-transit system in San Juan since the trolleys of the early 20th century.
The Bayamón-to-San Juan line is Phase I of a system planned to grow tentacles during the next 10 to 15 years to Old San Juan, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the eastern suburb of Carolina and the central city of Caguas. The Tren Urbano is planned as the rail component of an integrated transit system that will coordinate train, bus and ferry routes.
With 2.5 million vehicles for 3.9 million people -- economist Francisco Catalá has said that everyone here could go for a ride all at once, and no one would have to sit in the back -- Puerto Rico ranks among world leaders in ratios of cars per individual, per square mile and per road mile.
In the San Juan metropolitan area, home to 1.5 million, traffic can slow to a stop during the morning and evening rush hours, and the flow remains thick during the weekend.
The Tren Urbano is not projected to take cars off the road, but to slow the pace at which new ones are added.
"A new system doesn't reduce traffic, but it should decrease the rate of growth," said University of Puerto Rico engineering professor Jack Allison, director of the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority here from 2001 until last month. "And you'll see less need of parking."
To acquaint islanders with the service and give operators experience, the train has been offering free rides on weekends since December and weekdays since April. Daily ridership had grown to 40,000 by the end of May, with the total number of passenger trips surpassing 3.5 million.
The number of riders dipped by 45 percent Monday when, for the first time, passengers were charged $1.50 each way. Alcaraz said that officials had expected a temporary decline and that the target of 80,000 weekday riders by the end of the first year of service remained within reach.
"People like it," he said. "What we have to do now, the message has to be, 'You tried it; you liked it; it was very good to you.' That message will allow us to sell it."
Daily ridership is projected at 115,000 after five years. The train is to operate on a $100 million annual budget, with up to $25 million coming from fares.
The Tren Urbano had been plagued with delays and cost increases since construction began in 1996. Originally projected to open in November 2001 at a cost of $1.38 billion, it began service Monday after an investment of $2.25 billion.
The federal government contributed $750 million. In an audit issued last year, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation called management of the project "unsatisfactory" and said the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority should be considered a "high-risk grantee."
Nonetheless, Congress subsequently approved federal participation in Phase II of the project, the extension to Carolina. And Monday, as passengers sped along in air-conditioned train cars high above the city traffic, the setbacks appeared to be forgotten.
Alba Rodríguez parked her car Monday morning at the Jesús T. Piñero station and rode to Sagrado Corazón.
"I like it," she said. "I'm not down there in traffic, worrying about parking. I wish it would expand to more places."