Puerto Rico offers transit pointers for Honolulu rail
AT A RECENT meeting in Puerto Rico, I was invited to observe the island's two-year-old mass transit system, the "Tren Urbano" or urban train, which runs along a 10.7-mile course in the Capitol, San Juan.
I jumped at the chance because there are many similarities between Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and both San Juan and Honolulu have major traffic congestion problems.
In Puerto Rice, as in Hawaii, industry and commerce have become more important than agriculture. Sugar and pineapple once were major crops, and through most of the first half of the 20th century, a railroad system served to transport people and goods. Now 3.3 million people live on what the tourism marketing people call "the enchanted island," driving 2.2 million cars.
The Tren Urbano is one component of San Juan's public transportation system, which also includes buses, ferries and taxis. Boston-based Alternative Concepts Inc. is in charge of transportation management for Tren Urbano, and 400 local people were trained and are employed to run the 16 stations and the complex operations and maintenance of this heavy rail system. ACI was contracted to design, build, operate and maintain the system in cooperation with Siemens (a German company).
THE TRACK system is built at various elevations with 52 percent elevated above grade, 40 percent on grade and 8 percent underground. It operates from 5:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m.
The train runs through a heavily populated area of San Juan, and stations include the University of Puerto Rico, hospitals and the Judicial Center. Each station is architecturally unique and incorporates local artwork in the design.
Local police and private security personnel patrol the stations, and violent incidents have not been a problem.
Vehicle maintenance is a top priority. There are daily inspections and strict preventive maintenance schedules, with the work done at night in a large facility at the end of the line. The whole operations area is computerized. The software was locally developed in cooperation with MIT.
The computer system analyzes ridership, and shows a sharp dip when university classes are not in session. It is said to be very attractive to students and seniors, with a round trip for these groups costing only 75 cents. General fare is $1.50 round trip. It is handicap accessible.
THE TRAIN ride itself was smooth and the cars roomy and bright. Half of the users walk to the stations and others use "park and rides" or buses. Puerto Rico's bus system is not as well developed or efficient as Hawaii's.
Federal and local monies have assisted Puerto Rico to build Tren Urbano at the cost of $2.25 billion, and an extension is being planned.
Ridership is lower than projected but is increasing, with a 7.5 percent increase from 2005 to 2006. Some say that Puerto Rico bought a "Cadillac," or more than they needed. However, I agree with my hosts that the construction of any transit system must be done with the future in mind.
When flying into San Juan, I was struck by the population density of the urban area in comparison to Honolulu. By 2030, our urban core and the surrounding suburbs in Leeward and Central Oahu might be much the same. We must proceed with our scheduled plan to build transit -- our sister island state has shown it can succeed.
Marilyn Lee, a Democrat, represents District 38 (Mililani-Mililani Mauika) in the state House.