Puerto Rico gov enacts measures that reduce bureaucracy, raise funds

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed into law several bills that seek to make the island’s central government and municipalities more efficient, as well as generate revenue.

The governor approved House Bill 1256, which was authored by Rep. José González Mercado to reduce bureaucracy by eliminating extra documentation required of bidders. The measure allows bidders who have received a bidding eligibility certificate by the General Services Administration (GSA) to participate in municipal offers without the need for additional documentation.

Rosselló said in a release issued by his office Sunday that the GSA’s inspection and accreditation process is sufficiently thorough, allowing for a “Single Bidder Registry.”

“It is unnecessary for a person or company to have to be certified in each municipality that might need their permits. This is a measure for efficiency and agility in government efforts, which shows that Puerto Rico is open for business,” Rosselló said.

Meanwhile, House Bill 839, authored by the Rep. Joel Franqui Atiles, makes it possible for the GSA to reach agreements with private companies for the sale of advertising space on certain government vehicles. Half of the funds raised by the initiative will be used to maintain the Department of Public Security’s fleet, which includes Police, Fire, Forensic Sciences and Medical Emergency department vehicles.

“At a time of great fiscal challenges, this initiative allows us to raise additional funds by allowing businesses to advertise on certain government vehicles,” the governor said.

Rosselló also enacted Joint House Resolution 228, authored by Rep. Michael Abid Quiñones Irizarry, which makes it possible for the Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTOP by its Spanish initials) to establish a pilot program for the renewal of a vehicle;s inspection sticker electronically.

He also signed Senate Resolution 242, which was authored by Sens. Thomas Rivera Schatz, José Vargas Vidot and Eduardo Bhatia to order the Office of Legislative Services to digitize any report or historical document produced in the drafting of the Constitution of Puerto Rico.

“As we approach 2020, we need to continue developing technological and innovative alternatives that position us at the forefront of the times. These joint resolutions comply with the public policy of innovation that we promote, while facilitating [government preocesses] for our constituents,” the governor said.

Rosselló also announced that he signed Senate Bill 940, which was authored by Sen. Miguel Romero. The measure aims to facilitate and clarify the process for the reconstruction of the Santurce and Río Piedras urban areas by allowing citizens to acquire abandoned real estate “directly,” with the objective of fostering their restoration and development.

Bill seeks to include Real ID in Puerto Rico Traffic Act

SAN JUAN — The Puerto Rico Senate began holding public hearings Tuesday over a bill to amend the island’s Road Traffic Act and adapt it with provisions of the Real ID Act of 2005, which will be enacted stateside in October.

Sen. Miguel Laureano will oversee the hearings for S.B. 816, which also proposes that identity protection safeguards equal to driver’s licenses issued by the Department of Homeland be incorporated into all official identification cards.

“It is a priority that citizens know and understand the importance and advantages of having the Real ID. We know of citizens who have faced problems in other states for lack of identification. Therefore, it is important for DTOP [Spanish initials for the Public Works & Transportation Department] to offer guidance prior to issuing the person a license or identification, as some citizens decline precisely because they do not know the benefits,” the legislator said in a statement.

Puerto Rico gets REAL ID extension

He recalled that nearly four years after the terrorist attacks in 2001 Congress approved the Real ID Act of 2005 with the objective of helping fight terrorism and establish national standards to obtain a driver’s license and ID cards.

According to Homeland Security, the extended term to obtain a Real ID is Oct. 17. Failure to carry it could limit a person’s access to military buildings and bases and could hinder travel abroad.

Even though DTOP already issues the Real ID, only 62,800 new or renewed driver’s licenses and 7,014 identification cards have been issued. Roughly two million people are part of the DTOP system.

“Residents are unaware of the importance and the need to have the Real ID; many do not understand the reasons and also are unaware that there is an additional charge of $15. At the time of renewal, users should be informed about the limitations they will have if they do not have the Real ID. Caveats must be in writing at the time of renewal,” the senator said.

Puerto Rico Residents May Now Request a REAL ID

He also warned that the proximity of the deadline to obtain the Real ID could cause congestion at the Drivers Service Centers (Cescos by its Spanish acronym), so a general educational campaign should be started on the Real ID, who may obtain it, and its the advantages and disadvantages.

“To give an example, the disadvantage of not having the new identification is that the driver’s license will read “Not for Real ID Purposes” in red; you will not be able to use your driver’s license for domestic travel inside and outside the United States and its territories; you will not be part of the interconnected national database, among others,” he explained.

The Justice Department, DTOP and the Ports Authority participated in the first hearing.

Only half of Puerto Rico’s traffic lights work

SAN JUAN – While more than 100 days have passed since Hurricane Maria left a path of destruction across Puerto Rico, traveling by car still leaves many drivers breathless as they maneuver through the many intersections left with damaged traffic lights.

With a lack of traffic lights at intersections and the risk this situation entails, the island still has a ways to go before parts arrive to repair and restore the island’s power system.

The secretary of Transportation & Public Works, Carlos Contreras, said Thursday that some 615 traffic intersections are already working, but that figure is only half of the 1,200 around the island.

Gov’t says it will begin to repair traffic lights at Puerto Rico intersections

There are about 220 “functional” traffic lights, but they have to be powered up by the Electric Power Authority before they are operational, according to a written statement.

“Although we have had to [write up] purchase orders for materials from the United States, because there are parts that are not available in Puerto Rico, as these materials arrive, we have made progress with other repairs. However, there are cases of intersections with traffic lights that have already been repaired, but depend on other factors to make them work,” the secretary added.

In this regard, Contreras explained: “To date, for example, we have 220 intersections with additional traffic lights that have already been repaired, and are only waiting for the re-establishment of electric power so they can work. Another 66 intersections are pending, as we receive the pieces that were ordered, but were already impacted by our agency. Similarly, there are some traffic lights that may not be in perfect physical condition, but we were able to make them work.”

The executive director of the Highways & Transportation Authority said that “practically 100% of the traffic lights in Puerto Rico were affected by Hurricane María.”

Senate orders investigation into plan to rebuild Puerto Rico roads

(Archvie / CB)

SAN JUAN – The Senate passed a resolution Tuesday ordering an investigation into the Transportation & Public Works Department (DTOP by its Spanish initials) plan to restore and maintain Puerto Rico’s state roads, which sustained significant damaged from hurricanes Irma and María.

For purposes of the investigation, DTOP will have to “provide the data, factors and statistics on the improvement and deterioration of state roads.”

Senate Resolution 406, authored by Sen. Miguel Laureano, says the Innovation, Telecommunications, Urbanism and Infrastructure Committee must submit a report with the findings of its investigation within the next three months. Likewise, it will have to recommend the legislative and administrative actions that must be adopted as a result of the investigation.

Meanwhile, the legislative body also approved Senate Resolution 533 to investigate why the Puerto Rico Police has yet to be be paid owed overtime.

“I’ve learned that this is done on notebooks that are delivered and go through a bureaucratic process. This is unacceptable. This investigation will aim to give us a clear explanation of the extra hours of the most important security officer in the country,” said Sen. Henry Neumann, who presides the Public Safety Committee.

“It is unfair that a person who risks their life is not paid for the time worked. Also, I don’t know of any industry that doesn’t pay the hours worked. Wherever I go, police complaints are related to working in distant areas where they do 10-, 11- and 12-hour shifts, especially after the passage of Hurricane María,” the legislator added.

USACE grants contract to power up eastern Puerto Rico towns

SAN JUAN – Public Affairs and Public Policy Secretary Ramón Rosario announced Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) awarded a $19 million contract to Aptim Federal Services to install a 25-megawatt generator at the Yabucoa power plant and provide more reliable energy to the Yabucoa and Humacao regions.

The official also said the number of personnel working on the repair of power transmission and distribution lines in the different regions of the island continues to increase.

“As reported by the Electric Power Authority [Prepa], in the western region 125 PowerSecure workers came in under a USACE contract to join the Cobra Energy crews that have arrived in the past few days,” Rosario said.

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He added that Prepa had restored more than 42% of its generation capacity Tuesday. They following towns have been partially connected to the grid: Aguadilla, Añasco, Arecibo, Cabo Rojo, Caguas, Camuy, Coamo, Corozal, Florida, Guaynabo, Hatillo, Hormigueros, Lajas, Lares, Mayagüez, Ponce, Sabana Grande, Salinas, San Juan, San Lorenzo, San Sebastián, Santa Isabel, Toa Baja, Utuado, Vega Alta and Vega Baja.

Meanwhile, the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) reported providing service to 27,284 more customers, for a total of 1,098,633, or 85.38%. The island’s metropolitan area has had 95% of its water service restored, while the north is up to 67%; the west 83%; the south 90%; and the east 84%.

Prasa continues to work with filtration plants such as such as Corozal’s and Morovis Sur, which have had problems drawing raw, or untreated, water.

Similarly, there were problems with the electric generator at the Río Lajas pump station in Dorado, as well as with the Santa Isabel filtration plant; the Acerola well and Arraiza in Vega Baja; in Cerro Gordo II, Casey I and II in Añasco; and in Furnias I in Las Marías. At the Ceiba Sur dam in Juncos, cleanup that affects customers in the Gandul sector is being carried out. Also, at Saltos I in Orocovis, the power station is off pending the completion of work in the area.

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The Transportation & Public Works Department (DTOP by its Spanish initials) said its AutoExpreso toll website is up and residents may access their accounts and verify their balance. Most of the toll stations where one can add credit to the toll card are now open.

Rosario said drivers will not pay tolls used from September 20 to 24 and, in addition, those who drove through them without credit will not be fined. When adding credit to their toll account, drivers can pay what they owe since Sept. 25 without fines or surcharges.

There are now 259 bank branches and 1,211 automatic teller machines (ATMs) reportedly in operation. Meanwhile, 2,460 evacuees and 129 pets remain in 61 shelters.

The secretary recalled that the hospital vessel USNS Comfort is docked at the San Juan pier and is seeing patients. About 3,700 people have been treated, while 24 patients continue on the ship.

Regarding telecommunications, 72 percent of customers have cell service and 1,418 antennas are working.

In collaboration with the government, Liberty Puerto Rico continues to offer Wi-Fi service in several towns for residents to access the internet, complete Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims, as well as gain access health services and entertainment. It was in Yabucoa on Wednesday, will serve Guayama on Thursday and Salinas on Friday.

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

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.

Puerto Rico House demands people be told when highway toll use will be charged

SAN JUAN – Rep. José Luis Rivera, the chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, gave the Autopistas Metropolitanas of Puerto Rico (Metropistas) and the Highways and Transportation Authority (HTA) a Monday deadline to inform the committee when toll use will begin to be charged.

Rivera even recommended on Wednesday that a separate process be established for retroactive payment with the one established before Hurricane María.

“People should be informed when the deadline is. This situation cannot continue to be postponed. Because it has been more than a month, 42 days today, with this situation and there are people who have lost their jobs and continue to use the toll because they thought the toll was going to be free, but the toll will be charged. Of 42 days there are 37 days that have to be paid,” the legislator said during a hearing.

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The petition came during the first public hearing on Resolution 67, filed by Rivera, to investigate when regular toll payments will begin and how users would be charged retroactively for payments that were not withheld during the emergency period after the impact of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, as well as the estimated damage sustained by the island’s roads and bridges.

Metropistas Operations Director Xavier Serra, who oversees the North region, assured that tolls will not be charged from Sept. 20 to 24. However, he said each vehicle that passes a toll has been counted since Sept. 25. He added that it will be necessary, in coordination with the executive branch, to establish a process and date to start charging toll use retroactively, as well as a date when the normal collection system will be restored.

Attorney Juan Maldonado, legal adviser to Transportation & Public Works (DTOP by its Spanish initials) Secretary Carlos Contreras, said the department did not make a concession as Metropistas did, initially granting a grace period for the emergency. He explained that “while transactions were being recorded, Highways [and Transportaion Authority] was operating. In addition, as of today’s date, the Highway Authority has not determined what will be done to collect tolls.”

Rivera also recommended that a concession in the same fashion as that given by Metropistas, be considered for the same period.

Meanwhile, HTA Deputy Director Luis Rodríguez said the damages sustained from the impact of María reach $255 million and that “as of [Tuesday] there had been 4,252 incidents reported, of which 425 are landslides, 15 bridges and 25 roads are closed.”



Thousands of cases of road damage reported in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Transportation Secretary Carlos Contreras said Wednesday that after Hurricane María, more than 1,500 cases of damage to the island’s roads have been logged, not counting traffic lights, which were declared useless.

“We have already decided that instead of going one by one, [we chose to] say all traffic lights have problems because the [damage can range from the device itself] to fallen supports…. But basically all the intersections with traffic lights are going to require some kind of work…. So we grouped them all as a single incident,” Contreras said, noting there were still areas yet to be assessed.

Fernández Juncos Avenue in San Juan. (CB Photo)

With regard to the island’s highways, Contreras said most of the problems found were in the Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) network, for which Federal Highway Administration funds could be used to make repairs.

“We are asking for a quick release so they free up $40 million,” he said. “But we are estimating that total claims amount to $240 million for roadways. That’s without having seen some things.”

Then the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced the immediate availability of $40 million in “quick release” Emergency Relief (ER) funds.

The funds supplement the $2.5 million in ER funds awarded to the island for damages related to Hurricane Irma.

“It is critical to get the island’s infrastructure in working condition as soon as possible so relief supplies and other assistance can be delivered to the people of Puerto Rico,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.

US Highway Administration grants $40 million to Puerto Rico Transportation Dept

Two contracts were bid this week for repairing La Virgencita bridge in Toa Alta and the bridge that connects Juana Díaz and Ponce.

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Regarding operations at Drivers Service Centers [Cescos by its Spanish acronym], Contreras said some, such as Guayama’s, were destroyed and none have electricity.

“We still don’t have an approximate date for when we will start operating again,” he said “I signed a resolution extending the validity of inspection stickers and driver’s licenses until we can start again.”

The resolution doesn’t apply to airports because DTOP cannot ask authorities to allow people to travel with expired licenses. People whose licenses have expired and need to travel must contact DTOP to see how they can be assisted.

Coast Guard lifts Port of San Juan restrictions

Meanwhile, the Maritime Shipping Authority is operating with certain restrictions because the buoys that indicate where vessels navigate were damaged by the storm.

The Metropolitan Bus Authority (AMA by its Spanish acronym) is expected to resume operations Monday, despite damages to its fleet, terminals and headquarters.

Contreras assured no fines would be issued for driving through highway tolls with creditless accounts, but the toll was being charged.

(Jaime Rivera/CB)

Puerto Rico gov’t announces $112 million for highway repairs

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and Transportation Secretary Carlos Contreras announced Thursday the allocation of $112 million in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funds for 17 projects to repair roads and bridges in at least 14 municipalities.

The repairs will be carried out on several main roads, such as Luis A. Ferré (PR-52) and José de Diego toll roads, the Martínez Nadal express and PR-66. There will also be noise barriers constructedd in Bayamón and Toa Baja, and Bridge 3000 (Naranjito’s cable-stayed bridge) and bridge 547 over Quebrada Cruz in Toa Alta will be repaired.

Both Puerto Rico’s governor and Transportation secretary announce $112 million in federal funds to repair roads in 14 island towns. Infrastructure adviser María Palou was present for the announcement. (Courtesy)

The repairs should create some 2,500 jobs and the minimum wage for these projects is expected to be $8.25 an hour, as stated in Executive Order 26 of 2017. Bidding for the projects will take place between September and October, Contreras said.

This amount is only part of the funds managed by the Transportation & Public Works Department (DTOP by its Spanish initilas) secretary, who also heads the Highways and Transportation Authority (HTA). Contreras expects an additional $60 million at the end of the year for roadway improvements, as well as another $100 million in the first quarter of next year, all federal funds.
During this administration, the secretary projects that about $1 billion in federal funds could be received, Contreras said during a press conference in La Fortaleza for whicn included the adviser to governor in infrastructure matters, María Palou, was present.

“These efforts have been achieved through an effort that we started earlier this year with an aggressive design plan that allows us to maximize the use of federal funds in rebuilding roads that in turn will have an impact on the economy through the creation of more than 2,500 jobs,” the secretary said.

These projects were selected from the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and were part of the Long-Term Transportation Plan (LRTP).

The repairs will benefit Naranjito, Barranquitas, Bayamón, Carolina, Canóvanas, Guaynabo, Naguabo, Rio Grande, Salinas, San Juan, Santa Isabel, Toa Alta, Toa Baja and Yauco.

Senate bill intends to revive traffic camera fines in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN – Sen. Abel Nazario Quiñones has filed Senate Bill 452, aimed at  regulating a new automated traffic control system–known locally as fotomultas, for traffic-camera fines, for implementation on the island’s high-risk roadways.

According to the bill, the secretary of the Public Works & Transportation Department (DTOP by its Spanish initials), will be in charge of establishing the system to oversee and calibrate the equipment used to detect traffic violations. A bidding process will be used to select the company “that is the most efficient and has the lowest cost to the treasury.”

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This new version would have “a uniform and reliable review process,” since the process to challenge fines would be identical to that for any other traffic ticket in order to avoid confusion and guarantee citizens the right of due process of law, Nazario explained.

The distribution of funds collected by from the fines would be as follows: 25% for the retirement system for police personnel affected by Act 3; 5% for the Molecular Center of Puerto Rico; 5% for Puerto Rico Police overtime pay and debt owed to the force; 15% for infrastructure and purchase of equipment for the Medical Center of Puerto Rico; 25% for the payment of Puerto Rico’s debt; and the remaining 25% will be distributed among the municipalities where the cameras are located.

“One of the major problems of the former…system was the administrative review process to challenge fines. The drivers did not know the process to review and submit complaints about the fines issued,” the legislator said. “With this new version, each citizen is guaranteed the right to due process of law and eliminates any confusion.”

The Senate Innovation and Infrastructure Committee said public hearings for the bill will begin before October.

See images from currently installed traffic cameras here.