HUD provides $2 billion to thousands of homeless programs

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded approximately $2 billion to renew support to thousands of local homeless assistance programs, including more than $18.1 million to 56 Puerto Rico programs.

HUD’s Continuum of Care grants will provide support to a total 5,800 programs that serve individuals and families experiencing homelessness. The renewal funding is for previously funded programs. The agency said it will announce new project awards, including those with Domestic Violence Bonus funding, at a later date.

The funding supports interventions to assist those experiencing homelessness, “particularly those living in places not meant for habitation, located in sheltering programs or at imminent risk of becoming homeless,” the department said, adding that it serves more than one million people yearly through emergency shelter, transitional, and permanent housing programs.

On Thursday, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón congratulated the recipients of these funds and expressed her “total support for the commendable work they do in providing a roof for people who for various reasons cannot sustain a home.”

See the list of awarded programs in Puerto Rico here.

“At this time of year, thousands of local homeless assistance providers receive federal funding to operate and maintain stable housing for those living in our shelter system and on our streets,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a release issued Saturday. “Renewing these grants will come as a huge relief to these providers, and it will allow them to continue their work to house and serve our most vulnerable neighbors.”

Last December, HUD said, local communities reported homelessness in the U.S. remained largely unchanged in 2018. Based upon those reports, HUD’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress found that 552,830 people experienced homelessness on a single night in 2018, an increase of 0.3 percent since 2017.

“The number of families with children experiencing homelessness declined 2.7 percent since 2017 and 29 percent since 2010. Local communities also reported a continuing trend in reducing veteran homelessness across the country – the number of veterans experiencing homelessness fell 5.4 percent since January 2017 and by 49 percent since 2010,” HUD’s release added.

See the awards for all Continuum of Care renewal projects and projects that applied for transition grants.




Puerto Rico gov: We’re prepared legally if Trump diverts funds to border wall

SAN JUAN – Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares said Monday that legal arguments are ready in case President Trump decides, via emergency declaration, to divert funds assigned for Puerto Rico to continue building the U.S.’s southern barrier with Mexico.

“We have already worked on the legal mechanisms we have amid this scenario. We see it very difficult that money appropriated by Congress, signed by the president of CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) can be used in an emergency order. Likewise are the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funds. There are a series of smaller programs, where the president could possibly declare an emergency and try to take those funds,” Rosselló Nevares said at a press conference.

“If he does that, he would be taking funds from Puerto Rico, California, Texas, Florida. What the president needs to be asked is if he wants to use resources for the recovery of American citizens to build a wall. I think that clearly crystallizes two positions,” he added.

On Friday, Trump agreed to reopen, until Feb. 15, the federal government to continue the discussion on the budget and funds to build the border barrier.

If Congress refuses to provide funds to construct the structure, the president has the power to declare a state of emergency and allocate funds for its construction.

So far, of the budget alternatives that are being discussed, recovery funds for Puerto Rico are not included.




Congresswoman promotes investment opportunities, equality for Puerto Rico while in Florida

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón promoted economic development, investment opportunities and equality for the island to two organizations in Florida.

González Colón was invited to discuss the situation of Puerto Rico by the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida, the first Puerto Rican to address the group. During her speech, she highlighted her work as the first woman to represent Puerto Rico in Congress, and took the opportunity to promote the economic development of the island and advocate for its admission as a state.

The congresswoman provided an update of the impact and effects of Hurricane Maria on the island as well as its recovery progress. She gave an overview of the island’s situation, in terms of population and its economy, as well as federally approved legislation that benefits the island, such as the more than $48 billion allocated for disaster recovery and other programs.

On the other hand, González emphasized the territorial status of Puerto Rico and the limitations that this represents: “Only with statehood can we have a clear path towards full equality for the 3.2 million American citizens living in the island.”

She told the audience that Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood for the island twice and spoke about the bipartisan support of her “Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2018.”

Path to statehood bill

In the coming weeks, her office said in a release, the congresswoman will be introducing a new bill to establish “a straightforward path to admit Puerto Rico as a State once the Island’s American citizens reaffirm the territory’s choice of statehood through a plebiscite sponsored by the federal government under Public Law 113-76.”

Gonzalez-Colón also participated in a roundtable with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Metro Orlando to discuss economic development and investment initiatives as well.

The congresswoman highlighted the inclusion of Puerto Rico in the Opportunity Zones program, which “means that Puerto Rico is not subject to the 25% cap in the number of the census tract areas that may be nominated as O Zones within mainland jurisdictions and the qualifying zones under the program,” her office’s release reads.

At the roundtable, the lawmaker also noted the “achievement of the extension” of the Rum Cover-Over, or the transfer of the liquor’s U.S. excise tax to the treasuries of manufacturing jurisdictions, which “represents a $900 million injection for Puerto Rico and the [U.S.] Virgin Islands,” her office added.




COR3 Director Calls for Control Over Recovery Funds

Omar Marrero, director of the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority and the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction & Resiliency (CB/Rafelli González Cotto)

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Jan. 24-30, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Omar Marrero, director of the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority (P3A) and Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction & Resiliency (COR3), insisted he needs control over disbursement of funds for Puerto Rico’s recuperation, saying the excessive bureaucracy imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is delaying the island’s recovery from the 2017 hurricanes and commencing as permanent works.

“At COR3, we have engaged in the task to ensure we can take control of a highly bureaucratic process that FEMA itself has not been able to manage efficiently,” he said.

The island not only has no control of the disbursement of funds, but also has no control over the formulation of projects. “As of today, we have zero permanent works obligated for Puerto Rico. That means everything that has been worked on are Categories A and B, which are primarily emergency categories because FEMA has a highly bureaucratic process,” said a visibly frustrated Marrero.

He said FEMA is not giving Puerto Rico the opportunity to help hasten the processes, even though Marrero said he has provided ideas.

Two weeks ago, Marrero was in Washington keeping the different agencies appraised of the island’s recovery efforts but acknowledged that currently, the challenges and conditions imposed by FEMA to disburse funds still persist.

As of this Caribbean Business interview with Marrero, only 45 percent of public assistance funds, which are used to repair public facilities damaged by Hurricane Maria, have been disbursed. “Because those funds have not been disbursed at the pace we have requested since the first day, certainly, the recuperation process has been slow,” he said.

Contrary to other U.S. jurisdictions, Puerto Rico has no control over the reimbursement process because it is totally in FEMA’s hands. Currently, mayors have complained that two years after Hurricane Maria, they are waiting for the government to reimburse them for what they paid to make repairs after the storm, hurting not only municipal coffers but also private companies.

In an effort to help gain the U.S. government’s trust, the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló created COR3, which not only relies on “experts on disaster” but has a transparency portal of the federal funds that have been disbursed. The island completed two types of reconstruction plans. “We have kept the federal government abreast of what we have done, and with all due modesty, we have done a great job. But at the end of the day, we need to take over control of the process. It is the only way we can hasten the disbursements,” Marrero said.

Limited control

President Donald Trump recently accused the local government of using federal funds to pay debt in violation of federal law. Marrero said his remarks are lamentable and based on wrong premises. He said using federal disaster funds to pay debt is a violation of the Stafford Act. “Also, when you look at Puerto Rico, we don’t have control of the funds. Therefore, anyone who dares to say that Puerto Rico has wasted the funds and used the funds for something not authorized, does not know what he is saying,” he said.

The process to obtain federal funds is highly bureaucratic and consists of at least 10 steps, of which COR3 has only control of one. “I only control the disbursement,” he said.

For instance, if an agency seeks reimbursement for a $1 million repair, Marrero said the agency has to submit a request for investment to COR3 along with required documentation. COR3 then submits the request to FEMA, which does an initial review, examines whether any mitigation measures can be applied, and then puts it through an environmental preservation review and then an insurance review. The application is then returned to COR3 for review. “I usually review it in a day,” he said. The request is then submitted to FEMA again for a final review.

If the request for reimbursement is for more than $1 million, it has to go to an office in Washington, D.C. If it is more than $20 million, it has to go to another office in D.C. Only then is the money awarded.

However, the process does not end there. “That does not mean the funds are put in an account. I only get a notification that says ‘award,’” he said.

The request then has to go through what he called “the 270 process,” which consists of seven other steps in which COR3 must also show need. The process was adopted in November 2017 by the United States because Puerto Rico was a “high-risk jurisdiction.”

The 270 process requires the request to be sent to a Fiscal Transparency Group and FEMA confirms the funds can be disbursed.

“Once the money is put in our account, in less than a day, I disburse the money,” he said. “So, anyone who says we have misused a single dollar does not know the process and that includes the White House,” Marrero said.

Regarding Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, Marrero said that because of the federal shutdown he does not know when the $8.2 billion that has already been allocated is going to be received. Federal officials told the government it would take them longer to evaluate a plan developed by the government.

Which funds is the island at risk of losing because of the dispute over the construction of the wall along the U.S. southern border? “They are not FEMA or CDBG funds, but the ones allocated to the U.S. [Army] Corps of Engineers because the president has discretion over them as chief commander,” he said, referring to $2.5 billion for channeling of bodies of water at Puerto Nuevo in San Juan and other dredging projects in other jurisdictions.




Florida Sen. Scott files amendment for $600 million in additional funding for Puerto Rico

(Courtesy)

SAN JUAN –Florida Sen. Rick Scott advocated for Puerto Rico Thursday when filing an amendment to the Senate bill to finance the federal government that would allocate an additional $600 million to the island’s Nutritional Assistance Program.

“In Florida, we took aggressive action to support Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican community since before Hurricane Maria even made landfall, but our work isn’t done. Puerto Rico’s success is America’s success and Puerto Rico’s recovery is America’s recovery,” Scott said in a statement. “Puerto Rico does not have a voice in the United States Senate. I intend to be that voice.”

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón’s request for the additional funds was included in the lower chamber’s supplementary allocation bill.

“I am thrilled to have a partner in the U.S. Senate who makes Puerto Rico a priority,” González Colón said in a release. “As governor, Sen. Scott was there when Puerto Rico needed it most–and he has already proven that he will be a voice for Puerto Rico in the Senate.

“This funding is so important to help Puerto Rico continue to recover after Hurricane Maria, and I thank Sen. Scott for taking quick action to make this happen.

On Wednesday, the commissioner sent another letter to the leadership of the Senate and the Appropriations Committee to include the $600 million and for the island to receive 100 percent federal cost share for debris removal in Puerto Rico.”

 




Puerto Rico House to probe disbursement of federal recovery funds

SAN JUAN -The chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, José González Mercado, announced the introduction of a resolution to investigate the disbursement process of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and CDBG – Disaster Recovery (CDBG – DR) funds by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the government of Puerto Rico for the island’s recovery after Hurricane María struck in September 2017.

“Our objectives with this resolution to investigate are varied, mainly to learn how the disbursement of these funds is flowing, the actions the government has taken to utilize them and the preliminary results, as well as the plans for the use of future line items that have not yet been released by the federal government and the impact that the government closure has had on the availability of those funds. It is an exercise in transparency and to explain in great detail to the people where and how these resources are being used,” the lawmaker said in a statement.

González Mercado said his committee is also interested in learning “how the reconstruction of homes is going, how advanced is the process of restoring state and municipal roads. Also, we seek to learn how the dozens of bridges damaged by the hurricane are being worked on and what is the plan for areas that have not yet been touched.”

The measure orders the Housing and Urban Development Committee, as well as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to carry out the investigation within 180 days.

After Hurricane María, the federal government allocated, through its CDBG and CDBG-DR programs, some $18.5 billion for the reconstruction of homes and communities.

In December, HUD authorized the use of $400 million of those funds, which according to the governor’s announcement, would be used to complete residential projects for people with moderate incomes in San Juan, Caguas, Dorado, Comerío and Vega Alta. “It was also announced that the Government of Puerto Rico was ready to be authorized for additional funds,” the release reads.

“It is our position that the funds received from the federal government through the aforementioned programs must be used in a manner that represents the greatest benefit for Puerto Ricans. Our Island is annually threatened by the scourge of hurricanes for five months a year. In light of the above-mentioned, the money invested in the reconstruction should be directed mainly at the most vulnerable sectors. In consideration of the aforementioned, we must ensure that we develop housing with greater capacity to face the onslaught of a hurricane,” González Mercado stressed.




FEMA: Puerto Rico’s Recovery Brings Opportunity to Improve

SAN JUAN — In a release last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said Puerto Rico’s transformation from hurricanes Irma and Maria has “pivoted toward making the island stronger and more resilient.”

The island’s long-term recovery “envisions enhanced infrastructure and communities more capable of withstanding events like the 2017 hurricanes.” The government of Puerto Rico and FEMA have collaborated on several recovery projects that meet these objectives, the agency said.

“This is an opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure better than before,” said Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer. “Our commitment is to support Puerto Rico and to work with the government to build it back stronger.”

Below are a few examples that FEMA listed of planned recovery projects:

Advanced Warning System

The Puerto Rico Island Wide All Hazards Alert and Warning System will modernize emergency notifications for island residents. The network delivers alerts simultaneously through multiple communication devices such as sirens, mobile phones, television and radio.

The network is compatible with the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. FEMA developed IPAWS to accelerate emergency alerts and maximize outreach by delivering to multiple platforms.

Puerto Rico’s Guajataca dam has the first warning siren in the United States that is compatible with IPAWS. The dam—part of the Lake Guajataca reservoir that supplies water to roughly 200,000 people—sustained major damage during Hurricane Maria and threatened area residents.

Enhanced Emergency Planning

Federal agencies collaborated with the Government of Puerto Rico to create regional emergency operations plans to improve healthcare services during disasters. Plans addressed Hurricane Maria’s logistical challenges by creating response strategies unique to each region’s healthcare infrastructure.

The collaboration also created the Comprehensive Disaster Assessment and Readiness Tools, or CDART, for Puerto Rico healthcare providers. The mobile app increases visibility about the island’s healthcare capabilities by allowing providers to give real-time critical information to the Puerto Rico Health Department about available services.

New Water Testing Facility

The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) will repair the Caguas water testing facility that was damaged in Hurricane Maria. The structure will be repaired to modern building codes so it can better withstand hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

The Caguas facility is the largest of four water testing labs Prasa owns to ensure safe potable water for its more than 1.2 million customers across the island.

Stable Power Grid

Puerto Rico’s power grid has been stabilized after Hurricane Maria knocked out electricity throughout the island. The focus now turns to a comprehensive update to the grid.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the Government of Puerto Rico and federal partners are drafting a masterplan to modernize the grid to current standards with the support of FEMA funds. They expect to finalize the masterplan in early 2019.

“The plan is long-term and exhaustive. The result will be a strengthened power grid that reduces outages to critical infrastructure and homes after events like hurricanes and storms,” FEMA’s release reads.

Rebuilt Schools

The Puerto Rico Department of Education has identified 64 schools damaged in Hurricane Maria as recovery priorities. The island plans to repair and modernize these schools with the support of $1.3 billion in federal funds.

Advanced construction methods will make the repaired schools more storm-resistant so they may remain open for students after severe weather events. Schools will have ecological, electricity-saving features like solar panels and classrooms constructed so that they face away from direct sunlight.

While many more recovery projects are underway, a lot has already been done to help survivors and communities recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Many forms of disaster help approved so far are listed below:

Individuals and Households Program: $2.4 billion has been approved for survivors to pay for disaster-related expenses including to make home repairs and temporary help paying for a place to stay.
Disaster Unemployment Assistance: $23.9 million has been approved for survivors whose work was affected by the 2017 hurricanes.
Public Assistance to local governments for expenses related to disaster response and recovery: $4.8 billion.
Community Disaster Loans: $294 million approved for 74 municipalities. CDLs are provided to local governments that suffered a substantial loss of tax and other revenues as a result of a disaster and can demonstrate a need for federal financial assistance to perform critical functions.
– The Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair program has completed more than 2,700 home repairs. FEMA supplies building materials for free to certain volunteer groups making home repairs for disaster survivors.
– The Tu Hogar Renace program has completed more than 107,000 home repairs. The program, administered by the Government of Puerto Rico, pays for temporary repairs so survivors can shelter in place while awaiting permanent repairs.
– The U.S. Small Business Administration has approved $1.9 billion in low-interest disaster loans to homeowners, renters and businesses.




FEMA grants Puerto Rico additional $64 million to cover hurricane costs

These awards bring to $4.6 billion the amount of funds obligated under FEMA’s Public Assistance program.

The latest grants approved are as follows:

  • More than $44 million to the Puerto Rico Department of Education for debris removal and emergency protective measures.
  • More than $11 million to the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau to cover emergency protective measures.
  • More than $6 million to the Municipality of Trujillo Alto for debris removal.
  • Nearly $3 million to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company for emergency protective measures.

Emergency protective measures are actions taken to eliminate or lessen immediate threats either to lives, public health or safety, or significant additional damage to public or private property in a cost-effective manner.

FEMA works with Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency, or COR3, through the agency’s Public Assistance program to obligate recovery funds to private nonprofit organizations, municipalities and agencies of the Government of Puerto Rico for expenses related to hurricanes Irma and María.




US House Committee holds hearing on gov’t response to 2017 hurricane season

SAN JUAN – The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing Thursday on the U.S. government’s response to the 2017 hurricane season, including efforts to aid affected survivors and communities.
It was also intended to discuss opportunities to improve federal natural disaster-related programs, using lessons learned from 2017 hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, resulting in the costliest U.S. hurricane season on record, and affected nearly eight percent of the entire U.S. population, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Since the 2017 hurricane season, FEMA released an After-Action Report and has taken steps to implement lessons-learned over the past year.

Last month, committee Republicans released a staff report finding recurring problems continue to hinder federal disaster response and recovery efforts. The report came after the committee’s multi-year investigation of federal programs intended to help communities recover from major natural disasters.

“Members from both sides of the aisle focused primarily on the disputed death toll count in the aftermath of the hurricane. There are those on the hill who believe the hearing was a forecast of what will occur once Democrats gain oversight and subpoena power,” the center for the New Economy wrote about the hearing.

Among the witnesses invited to appear was FEMA Administrator  William B. “Brock” Long. He welcomed that the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 gave FEMA, in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, “Public Assistance funding for critical services to replace or restore the function of a facility or system to industry standards without restrictions based on their pre-disaster condition.

“The law further allows FEMA to provide assistance for critical services to replace or restore components of the facility or system that are not damaged by the disaster when it is necessary to fully effectuate the replacement or restoration of disaster-damaged components to restore the function of the facility or system to industry standards,” his submitted testimony reads.

“In Puerto Rico, we are facing many unique challenges throughout the long-term recovery process. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners in the Commonwealth, other federal agencies, and Congress to find joint solutions moving forward to: (1) develop cohesive, solutions-oriented strategies to maximize federal funding while building a more resilient Puerto Rico; (2) build Puerto Rico’s capacity to manage the incoming tens of billions of dollars in grant funding; and (3) continue internal controls to ensure appropriate use of taxpayer funding,” according to his testimony.

Major Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, deputy commanding general for Civil and Emergency Operations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Dr. Lynn Goldman, Michael and Lori Milken Dean from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, also testified.
Goldman spoke about the Hurricane Maria study conducted by the public health school.

“Like all of the U.S., the physicians in Puerto Rico do not have the correct guidance to complete death certificates to relate deaths to hurricanes and natural disasters,” Goldman said. “But we didn’t find that the hurricane affected the quality or completeness of death certificates, although it did create some delays in some of the records.”

Goldman said the school’s researchers learned that resources need to be focused on the elderly and those living in low-income areas. For the coastal regions in particular, Goldman said there must be plans in place to protect medical facilities and evacuate people.

“We would like to see improvements in federal guidelines and training for death certificates as well as strengthening of public health systems,” she said in her testimony.




Puerto Rico Highway Projects Depend on Availability of Federal Funds

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.