Puerto Rico’s Urban Train – Let’s Review, 15 Years Later – A Hesitant Puerto Rico Tries Commuting by Train

Was it a success or a boondoggle and huge waste of money?  Were the rosy projections correct?


A Hesitant Puerto Rico Tries Commuting by Train


SAN JUAN, P.R. – Carlos Medina rides the subway only when he visits New York. Here, where he lives, he spends untold hours in his car.


Mr. Medina does become frustrated by the traffic jams, potholes and recklessness he encounters daily on Puerto Rican roads. But a gleaming new alternative — a commuter train that started running last December after years of planning and expense — has yet to win over him or, for that matter, most other commuters.


“I’m not going to use the train until it actually takes me to all the places I want to go,” the 34-year-old Mr. Medina said while shopping at Plaza las Américas, the island’s major mall, which, though always packed, does not have a train station.


For now, Puerto Rico’s Tren Urbano, or urban train, consists of a single, 10.7-mile line with 16 stations through parts of San Juan and its suburbs. There are plans to build three more lines within a decade, possibly starting in the next two years. But in a metropolitan area of 1.1 million people, the train is selling only about 24,000 rides a day, a figure that has transportation officials worried about achieving their goal of 80,000 riders daily by June and 115,000 by 2015.

Puerto Rico is, after all, a car-loving place: there are an estimated three million cars on this island of four million people. The island has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world and the greatest density of cars per mile of metropolitan-area highway, says Benjamin Colucci, an engineering professor at the University of Puerto Rico who is a consultant on the project. A drive that takes 10 minutes in San Juan at night can take 90 during the day, when cars weave and honk through congested streets.

The urban train took longer than expected to build and has cost $2.25 billion in federal and local spending so far. Building the three additional lines, in the cities of Caguas and Carolina and in the historic Old San Juan section here, will cost an estimated $1.7 billion. The price of yearly maintenance, now $100 million, is expected to be $180 million after expansion.

Consultants from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Puerto Rico helped design the heavy rail train, which has the potential for greater capacity than light rail systems like those in Baltimore and Denver. The elegant stations were planned in consultation with the surrounding neighborhoods, partly to encourage residents to become riders.


Each station — modern, spacious and squeaky clean — has a public art project: perhaps a hanging sculpture made of steel cables, a ceiling mosaic of a tropical forest or a mural depicting stars and planets.


Gabriel Alcaraz, Puerto Rico’s new transportation secretary, says the stations, which cost $15 million to $83 million, are too grandiose. Mr. Alcaraz and Gov. Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, who took office in January and is facing a budget crisis, want future stations to be smaller, identical and cheaper.

But Carlos Pesquera, who was transportation secretary when he oversaw construction starting in 1993, said the stations needed to be large to accommodate six-car trains. And many people, even those who do not ride the train, admire the stylish stations.

“I like that the stations now are fancy,” said Lydia Marco, 18, a waitress and student who said she wished the train route extended to Old San Juan, where she works. “I would like to see more beautiful stuff like that built here. It’s something new for Puerto Rico that makes us proud of our cities.”


Puerto Rico has never before had much of a public transportation system; its buses are known for being late and not serving enough locations. But the urban train is now being scrutinized as a model, especially in the Caribbean and South America, said Professor Colucci, who has given seminars about it in the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela.


Still, officials here say Puerto Ricans themselves need to get used to the train, and that will apparently take some doing.

For one thing, the owners of públicos — private vans and cars that transport commuters for a fare — see the train as competition instead of a partner to work in tandem with, Professor Colucci said.


“We need públicos always arriving at a certain time to meet people when they get off the train,” he said. “If no público is there, then the person doesn’t have a link to get to a final destination.”


The Metropolitan Bus Authority, which could encourage train ridership by picking up passengers where rail routes end, is also competing with the train at present, Professor Colucci said, although the length of bus line overlapping with train route is to disappear eventually.

Fred Salvucci, a former transportation secretary in Massachusetts who is a consultant to Puerto Rico through M.I.T., said more incentives were needed to increase train ridership. The fare, $1.50, is six times that for the bus — too high for Puerto Rico, he said, where the average annual income is $12,031.


But a few government agencies are buying train passes for their workers, and at least one private employer, HF Mortgage Bankers in San Juan, is doing the same.


Further, the transportation department recently introduced new price packages: an unlimited three-month pass for $90 and a one-month for $45. The offer is being advertised in newspapers and on the radio, and a $1.5 million campaign is planned for billboards and television.


Mr. Alcaraz, the transportation secretary, said it was only a matter of time before Puerto Ricans not only rode the train en masse but also planned their lives around it.

“In parts of the world where trains have existed for a long time, people have chosen where to live and work based on the transportation available,” he said. “People in Puerto Rico will learn to do the same.”

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 10 of the National edition with the headline: A Hesitant Puerto Rico Tries Commuting by Train.
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