Thursday, November 23, 2017

Puerto Rico House seeks to block retroactive highway toll payment until December

By on November 3, 2017

Puerto Rico House Speaker Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, top center, and Rep. Pedro Santiago Guzmán, top right. (Yoel Parrilla / CB)

SAN JUAN – After a two-hour recess and brawling about the small quorum of representatives present, the Puerto Rico House gave way Thursday to a measure that would prevent until December the retroactive collection of AutoExpreso tolls on several of the island’s highways, which were not charged due to Hurricane Maria’s impact on the toll plazas.

House Bill 1267, filed by New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Pedro Santiago Guzmán, counters the government’s decision to grant a five-day “grace period” as of Sept. 20 for those who traveled on toll roads at the beginning of the emergency.

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Puerto Rican Independence Party Rep. Denis Márquez objected that if these tolls are not excluded, it would lead to a “class-action lawsuit” because the measure would not benefit those who also suffered the onslaught of the hurricane in the island’s northern region Sept. 20.

“Different geographic categories are being established [for] sectors that are using an expressway that, although managed by a private company, is still a public good. It’s still a good of the Government of Puerto Rico, and [different] categories are being established,” he said.

The pro-independence legislator then presented several amendments to include the highways operated by the private company. After a recess, Márquez decided to withdraw the proposed changes so the NPP majority could submit them again and have them approved.

“Those from the north, long live the private company, which will continue to benefit at the country’s expense, but the citizens who went through the crisis of [Hurricane] María have less of a right than those who used the tolls in the west and south,” the legislator said before the amendments were approved.

Thus, if this were to be enacted by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló–after being approved by the Senate–the measure would include all highway tolls on the island, those handled by the private company and the Transportation & Public Works Department (DTOP by its Spanish acronym), until Dec. 1.

The measure was approved, despite the fact that several government officials, including DTOP Secretary Carlos Contreras, have mentioned that not collecting tolls represents a revenue decrease in the millions for the Highways & Transportation Authority (HTA), which would affect its functions.

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“We have to see this as an investment to relieve the [economic] burden on Puerto Rico,” Santiago said about the legislation he authored. However, with the amendments approved today, the monthly losses would represent more than $30 million–$20 million for private tolls and about $11 million for the HTA.

Two weeks ago, La Fortaleza Public Affairs Secretary Ramón Rosario argued that the government’s position, “from day one,” has been to charge tolls retroactively, while recalling that the HTA is under Title III bankruptcy of the Promesa law.

The House recessed until 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6.

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