Friday, March 31, 2023

Puerto Rico Highway Projects Depend on Availability of Federal Funds

By on November 30, 2018

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Nov. 22-28, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

The Puerto Rico Highways & Transportation Authority has put out for bid more than $300 million in project contracts that include the extension of major highways and improvements to collective transportation and traffic intelligence.

However, these highway improvements and millions of dollars in additional projects slated to be put out for bids in coming months depend on Congress earmarking funds, which are part of a global request made by government agencies, said Carlos Contreras, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation & Public Works (DTOP by its Spanish acronym).

After Caribbean Business interviewed Contreras, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló wrote to the U.S. House majority and minority leaders requesting for more funds after the Federal Emergency Management Agency declined an appeal for additional funding.

The governor said a lot of work still remained to be done on the island after hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in 2017. Millions of cubic yards must still be cleaned up, he said. The Sheltering & Temporary Essential Power program still has more than 5,200 work orders to complete. Over 15,000 properties have been identified for demolition or which require the removal of debris.

“The current fiscal situation in Puerto Rico, together with these ongoing issues, means the withdrawal of full federal support for recovery efforts will significantly hinder the ability of Puerto Ricans to rebuild their homes, businesses and infrastructure,” he wrote.

That has not deterred DTOP. Puerto Rico has a total of 24,000 kilometers of roads but of that, only 8,000 kilometers are under DTOP’s jurisdiction. Of those 8,000 kilometers, only 75 percent, he said, qualify for certain federal funding for highways provided by the Federal Highway Administration. “When there is an emergency, then all qualify for federal funds. The Federal Highway [Administration] gives me money to repair roads but not to make them more resilient,” he said.

According to a reconstruction report submitted by the Puerto Rico government to Congress, the Puerto Rico Natural & Environmental Resources Department and Planning Board have submitted a request for funding through the Central Office of Reconstruction & Recovery (COR3) to conduct a vulnerability study that seeks to provide resiliency to all of Puerto Rico.

“That is a request that is being submitted through COR3. We do not have anything yet,” he said.

Carlos Contreras, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation & Public Works

“So, what is the wish list?” Caribbean Business asked.

Chief among the requests are proposed extensions to PR22, PR5, Highway 2 and PR5. Contreras said that contrary to popular belief, these highway extensions help create resiliency.

“When you have another alternative highway, you are creating resiliency. If Highway 2 is blocked, you have Highway 22. These highways are wider, do not have traffic lights and do not get flooded. Having alternate routes helps achieve redundancy,” he said.

However, the proposed extensions still await funding. The extension of PR22 to Aguadilla has been estimated at more than $1 billion. The extension of PR10 is estimated at $200 million while the extension of Highway 2 entails turning it into an expressway, at a cost of $230 million.

Of signs & men

Not everything, however, is on a wish list.

One project that was already put out for bid involves putting new signage on the island’s roads. Contreras said DTOP is redesigning road signs, so they are clearer. “Our goal is to put new signs on the roads, so people can get to places by just looking at the signs,” he said. The total cost of the project is $45 million.

Contreras said DTOP is building a special lane for buses, or so-called Metrobuses, that will take people to Caguas, similar to the DTL, or Dynamic Toll Lane, that already exists between Toa Alta and Bayamón. “It is being built and, if you pass through Montehiedra, you will be able to see it,” he said. He said that on PR30 en route to San Lorenzo, there will be a viaduct that will connect to PR52. “There will be a [Spanish] company that is going to run a private transportation service,” he noted.

A high-capacity transit service originally proposed to go to Luis Muñoz Marín Airport is no longer being proposed. “There were people talking about taking the [Tren Urbano] to the airport, but I believe that unless people are used to using collective transportation to get there, it is not worth it. We already have an AMA [Metropolitan Bus Authority] route. If people say a train is needed, I always say show me first that buses are needed, and then we will talk,” he said.

The plan sent to Congress also talks about implementing so-called intelligent transportation. Contreras said that is already being done. The program began in the 1990s. During the Mayagüez 2010 Games, there were cameras monitoring traffic. There was a traffic center in Mayagüez that was eventually moved to San Juan. The project has since been restarted. There are cameras along Baldorioty de Castro Expressway that are slated to monitor traffic. “I know that at 4 p.m., we routinely have traffic congestion. but if I have traffic congestion at 1:30 p.m., then that will raise the alarm in the monitoring traffic center that is being built in Caguas Norte,” he said, adding that this center is slated to start operations by January.

If there is unusual activity at a highway, DTOP will be able to respond to it by sending staff to the area, he said. “We should be able to respond to things faster,” he said.

Cutting trees, fixing bridges

Another plan to help improve roads involves trimming of trees. Contreras said it is not accurate to say DTOP plans to cut down 10,000 trees, as some environmentalists have said. He said DTOP plans to eliminate 3,000 trees, many of which are already deteriorated. The rest will be trimmed. “We hired tree experts to help us with this, and we are using federal guidelines. These are trees that are on the verge of falling into a roadway, and we want to avoid this problem. We had numerous accidents with that happening, with trees falling into highways after the hurricane,” he said.

What is DTOP going to do about the large number of traffic lights that are not operating more than a year after the hurricanes? Contreras said that of more than 1,200 traffic lights, less than 250 remain to be repaired. One problem is that there is a limited number of contractors in Puerto Rico to do the job. The other problem is that each traffic light requires a box or cabinet that must follow certain specifications. “Each cabinet has to be fabricated and that has delayed the work. For instance, it took a year for a cabinet we ordered for the intersection at Mata de Plátano [near Ciales] to be finished. Traffic lights in some sectors that were repaired have also been damaged again, and we also have to repair those again,” he noted. However, he said all contracts to repair traffic lights have already been contracted.

Contreras used the opportunity to reiterate that DTOP is not in charge of light posts on the island’s roads but that is the responsibility of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. “We are in charge of the high mast poles along the expressways,” he said.

Not a day goes by when a Puerto Rican driver hits one of the many holes on the island’s roads. Contreras reiterated that DTOP is in charge of only 8,000 kilometers of roads and the rest are the responsibility of mayors. He said part of the problem is that federal funds are always available to repair roads but not to maintain them. However, he said the government has begun a two-year program, Abriendo Caminos, to repair the thousands of holes in the island’s roads.

The program began in September in the island’s eastern towns with the repair of 15 roads at a cost of about $6 million to fill in more than 3,500 holes. Roads to be repaired are PR3, PR30, PR32, PR33, PR34, PR52, PR60, PR156, PR172, PR196, PR198, PR735, PR901, PR784 and PR760 in the municipalities of Aguas Buenas, Caguas, Cayey, Cidra, Gurabo, Juncos, Las Piedras, Humacao, Maunabo and Yabucoa.

Contreras explained that Puerto Rico is being divided into five regions and the projects are slated to take two years to complete.

After the hurricanes, Puerto Rico experienced about 700 landslides, which includes roads that also washed away. While DTOP has repaired or cleaned up some 400 landslides, it still has more than 300 roads that have caved through. “We have to redesign those and redo them. We have to rebuild walls. All of those projects already went out for bids and we are spending over $200 million,” he said.

Ferries to Vieques, Culebra

The government recently inaugurated a so-called short ferry route to Vieques and Culebra from Ceiba. Contreras anticipated the route from the island-municipalities to Fajardo will no longer exist and Fajardo has other plans with its piers. “We are not returning to Fajardo because that pier is deteriorated and requires $25 million in repairs,” he said.

Regarding complaints from people, Contreras said that as time goes by, people from the two island-municipalities will get used to going to doctors in Ceiba, and the route will help revitalize and bring much-needed business to the now-defunct Roosevelt Roads Naval Base. “We will see food trucks and even a supermarket. But the short route is what people wanted and it is here to stay,” he said.

Contreras also said that two pedestrian bridges across Baldorioty de Castro in San Juan will be replaced with bridges that will allow people with disabilities to cross. The agency recently tried to remove the bridges but had to postpone it because of protests.

“The bridges will be removed but I cannot rebuild what I have now because we have to comply with the ADA [American Disabilities Act],” he said. The old bridges will be replaced with new bridges that will require more land to build on. DTOP is negotiating with the Housing Department and the Aqueduct & Sewer Authority to acquire more land to rebuild these overpasses.

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