Coalition protests privatization of highway authority to pay its bondholders
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The STAR
Under a blazing sun, a handful of protesters played bomba. At the same time, representatives of several organizations chanted against privatizing the highways and transportation system to pay its debt, a matter under the consideration of federal judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is overseeing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy processes.
During the confirmation hearing for the Highways and Transportation Authority’s debt adjustment plan in a courtroom inside the federal building in Hato Rey, outside on Carlos Chardón Street the group stated that the plan is just another way to “sell the country.” At the same time, pensioners see their money disappear, and young people abandon Puerto Rico, they said.
The coalition is against the plan because it entails a toll price hike every year for the next 30 years that would triple what citizens pay at island highway toll stations. The adjustment also contemplates more fines and the privatization of the highway system.
“The [Financial Oversight and Management] Board continues to add more economic burdens to the people of Puerto Rico along with the sale and privatization of its most important public assets,” said Ángel Pinto, president of PROSOL-UTIER, Roads Chapter. “Now it is the highways, which are being transferred to private companies as a guarantee of payment to bondholders.”
Eva Prados, the spokesperson for the Citizens’ Front for the Audit of the Debt, said “what we pay today for a toll of less than one dollar would rise to $2.25 and that, with bidirectional tolls, will double the cost of travel on the island -- money that we will not see for the repair of the highways, but that will go to the unsustainable payment of an unaudited debt.”
“The government will issue new bonds, and we will end up paying double the principal with the accumulation of interest,” she said. “This agreement didn’t reduce the debt to sustainable levels, nor does it represent the best interests of Puerto Rico.”
Sonia Palacios, a pensioner and spokesperson for Build Another Agreement, said: “We join the claim and denounce that a new increase in tolls is unsustainable for the country.”
“Right now, with doctors leaving the island, pensioners and residents from outside the metropolitan area are forced to pay more money for their transportation to medical appointments,” Palacios said. “Without increases in pensions and the increase in the cost of living, it will be impossible to live.”
Ángel Rodríguez, president of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU by its Spanish acronym), said university students are paying triple what they used to pay in 2021. With the possible toll increase, it would be unsustainable to keep studying. Also, professors and employees would be significantly affected.
Raquel González from the Board of Puerto Rican Artists, added that “cultural workers suffer a severe blow with this new Debt Adjustment Plan, since we depend on exhibiting our art for a living.”
“The $200 or $300 that we hope to earn for a presentation has to cover hours of rehearsal, promotion and transportation that today ranges from $30 to $100 between gasoline and tolls, plus food, rent, electricity, the water, the dentist, the doctor,” she said.
The coalition of organizations includes the Citizen Front for the Audit of the Debt, PROSOL-UTIER, Federation of Commonwealth Managerial Employees Associations, UTIER, UNETE, General Workers Union, APPU, VAMOS and the Board of Puerto Rican Artists, Let’s Build Another Agreement, and the Pensions Defense Front.