Op-Ed: Puerto Rico needs to stop spinning infrastructure wheel and aim for implementation
When Ricardo Rosselló assumed the governorship on Jan. 2, 2017, he immediately signed an “Infrastructure Reform,” declaring a state of emergency regarding the island’s infrastructure and activated an expedited protocol for the development of projects.
He also created an interagency group to coordinate said projects. At that time there was talk of the creation of more than 100,000 jobs, a myriad of public works and impacts in areas of transportation, energy, social infrastructure, solid waste, and aqueducts and sewers, primarily.
But after nine months, Hurricane María arrived, destroying not only our decrepit energy system, it also caused damage to the vital infrastructure of the island.
In recent days, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s economic team made an announcement similar to Rosselló’s and outlined nine priority projects, this time the difference is that it bets on a large amount of money — almost $80 billion — most of it federal, which must be received in or before 2032 as part of disaster recovery funds.
Most of these initiatives have been worked on by past governments without being completed and not all are part of the island’s vital infrastructure.
A member of the current cabinet and official in the past administration candidly admits that the economy has not collapsed in the last year thanks to federal funds. Another official returns with the bet of creating over 100,000 jobs in the construction sector. He alludes that this will be the most benefited.
Sound familiar? To that end, the governor has appointed not only a Reconstruction Council, but also a permitting advisor in La Fortaleza’s Priority Projects office. Said official will be the facilitator with the Permits Management Office (OGPe, in Spanish) to help make the process more agile and efficient.
During the past term, a permit reform was approved accompanied by a voluminous regulation that was challenged. After this regulation was withdrawn, the OGPe approved another regulation and was again sued for approving it — it is alleged — without following the law and without consulting with all parties.
The plaintiffs alleged that the new permitting process makes any project more difficult and expensive, in addition to exposing that the agency does not have enough inspectors to carry out the inspections. Is this how we will achieve expeditious and priority infrastructure projects in four years?
It is urgent that there be speed in the approval of projects related to the island’s reconstruction, expedite their financing, and the execution of recommendations, consultations, permits and construction of critical and urgent infrastructure, to address the damage caused by the recent natural disasters.
At the beginning of January, the governor, through an executive order, created the aforementioned council and granted it 60 days to identify and recommend the different reconstruction projects and their level of priority. In recent days, the council met to outline the priority projects.
The great absentees were the mayors and professional associations such as the College of Engineers and Surveyors and the American Society of Civil Engineers, among others who have already done “X-Rays” of the island’s infrastructure problems and specific recommendations on how to address them in several reports.
It is time to stop creating workgroups, delaying and putting layers of bureaucracy in the repair and maintenance of our vital infrastructure. The island needs to attract investment and it cannot be done with poor infrastructure. Federal funds are not enough for the future maintenance of newly built or repaired infrastructure.
We cannot aim to raise the minimum wage and offer a future to the upcoming generations who today attend university classrooms if we continue in meetings and bureaucratic procedures. The recommendations have already been made and the Infrastructure Council appears to be ignoring them.
We can’t keep spinning the Ferris wheel. Mayors need participation as do academia and professional organizations.
We need the will to move forward as one!