Puerto Rico is part of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities that vary widely in terms of their population and land area. The San Juan Metropolitan Area where the Tren Urbano (“Urban Train”) was constructed is the principal center of population, employment, and government activities. With the adverse fiscal situation that the central government and agencies are facing, municipalities on the Island of Puerto Rico are attempting to take control of meeting the needs of their citizens. One of the biggest challenges Puerto Rico still faces is the realization of a reliable and integrated Public Transportation system.
Puerto Rico’s existing public transportation modes are managed by the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works(DTPW). The DTPW is a centralized umbrella agency that consists of the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority (PRHTA), Ports Authority, Metropolitan Bus Authority (MBA), and Maritime Transportation Authority (MTA). In 1967, proposals were made for the construction of a rapid rail transit system to serve the city of San Juan. In 1989, the DTPW officially proposed the construction of a new rail system, which was dubbed the “Tren Urbano”, Spanish for “Urban Train” or "City Train". In 1993, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) selected the Tren Urbano as one of the Turnkey Demonstration Projects under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. During 1996 and 1997, seven design-build contracts were awarded for different segments of the Tren Urbano Phase 1 system.
The rail system was officially inaugurated on December 19, 2004. Free service on the system was offered on weekends until April, 2005 when weekdays were added to the free service. Popularity grew quickly and by the end of the“free period” 40,000 people were using the train on a daily basis. By late 2005, however, ridership had fallen to 24,000, less than one-third of the 80,000 projection (and well below the projection of 110,000 for 2010).
Several factors have been offered to explain the drop in ridership, including the lack of service to Old San Juan, Santurce, the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and many other parts of Guaynabo, Bayamón, and San Juan. Neither is there service to important suburbs like Cataño, Toa Baja, Toa Alta, Carolina, Trujillo Alto, orCanóvanas. The absence of an Island-wide public-transportation system, the inner-city public bus transportation system—the Metropolitan Bus Authority (MBA) -- that operates in the Greater San Juan Metro Area without a regular schedule, and the lack of integration of the “Tren Urbano” with the metropolitan area public mass transit systems, such as the MBA and the Acuaexpreso (an urban ferry), remain a challenge for the DTPW.
In recent years, some municipalities have developed what they have called a Municipal Intermodal System of Transportation ("SITRA" in Spanish): a public transportation system that consists only of a "shared taxi" service that provides public cars and vans known as públicos. This system was first implemented in the city of Ponce, where eleven modern buses offer interconnection between rural areas and the main bus stops in that municipality.
Another municipality that implemented this system is Carolina, which is in the northeast. Through the implementation of SITRA-C (“C” identifies the name of the municipality), Carolina provided free transportation to Carolinenses in the city center, rural Carolina, and Isla Verde (near the airport). SITRAC also offered the service of "Paratransit" in rural areas, and the service "Call and Travel” through the Metropolitan Bus Authority in urban areas. Both services are accessible to people with physical or mental disabilities. It benefits people who reside within the SITRAC service area and that are unable to travel on a bus because of physical limitations.
The latest public transportation initiative that is taking place on the Island is Metro Urbano (“Urban Metro”). The project consists of a special lane along PR-22 that is used for a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system that plies the route from Toa Baja to the final Urban Train station in Bayamón. The project entices drivers from the western suburbs to take the train into San Juan to cut down on the voluminous morning commute. The project developed the lane as a “dynamic toll road,” meaning cars, as well as buses, can use the lane if they are willing to pay a toll. The last DTPW Secretary, Ruben Hernandez, indicated that one of the great advantages of Metro Urbano is its role in the integration of public transportation. Citizens arrive at the Bayamón Urban Train station, where they can board the train, Metropolitan Bus Authority buses or public cars to arrive at their destinations. This system is expected to be fully operational by August 2013.
On an Island where a large percentage of the work force commutes daily to San Juan (metro area), it will be interesting to see how, under a new government, the different systems are integrated with each other. Federal funds are being cut but Puerto Rico is pushing Private and Public Partnerships (P3) efforts forward in the area of public transportation.
Aixa G. Lopez, P.E, Robinson Aerial Surveys, Inc