Culebrenses & Viequenses ‘tired of so much abuse’ from foundering ATM

Offshore island residents take claims to Capitol; senators raise concerns about HSM Ferries contract

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

As Culebra and Vieques continue facing challenges such as travel delays and supply shortages due to multiple failures of the maritime transportation system they depend on, residents of Puerto Rico’s two offshore island municipalities formed a picket line Wednesday at the Capitol to demand that the central government, and especially the Maritime Transportation Authority, solve the problem once and for all.

To the sound of music, Culebrenses and Viequenses arrived at around 10:30 a.m. at the north side of the Capitol in Puerta de Tierra to call on the Maritime Transportation Authority (ATM by its Spanish initials) to take action on an issue that some claimed has lasted for more than 41 years, and called for the cancellation of the public-private agreement with HMS Ferries that could cost the government $34 million a year.

“The people of Culebra are tired of so much abuse; it has been decades that we have fought for so long,” said resident Mariluz Perales, who said islanders have suffered more after Hurricane Maria and during the coronavirus pandemic.

“ATM has been the worst thing that has ever happened to us,” Perales said. “Faulty vessels that are not maintained, shady contracts; the government doesn’t really care, appointing people and directors who are not capable of managing the agency and who purchase vessels without knowing anything about how vessels are supposed to work.”

Perales said trips have been more limited since the Marilin H. barge, whose operation costs the government up to $23,500 a day, ran aground in Culebra on Tuesday, causing “irreparable damage to the dock and the ecosystem” of the small island municipality.

“The barge remains stuck at the dock because no one has been able to take it out; therefore, the other private ferry that can transport cars cannot come in,” she said. “We have been more than 48 hours without transportation.”

“No one can handle this,” she added.

Meanwhile, Michael Chamblin, who is a resident, teacher and business owner in Culebra, said the island municipality’s maritime transportation issue is bringing about “a total collapse.”

“Gas runs outs, food runs out, supplies run out,” he said. “How are we able to survive in an island municipality?”

Perales added that although they are not against tourists visiting Culebra, they are asking the government to consider the islanders’ priorities first.

“If we are not doing well, how are we going to serve our tourists? How are we going to serve them something we are short of?” she said. “You go to grocery stores and they’re empty. Who is actually suffering?”

Moreover, Chamblin said, the island municipality at this moment “is not prepared to handle tourists.”

Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago said the upper chamber is currently anticipating a vote on Senate Resolution (SR) 147, which seeks to request that the Treasury, Federal Affairs and Financial Oversight and Management Board Committee and the Cooperatives Committee study the viability of developing a proposal that focuses on the operation and administration of maritime transportation through a municipal enterprise or a cooperative model between Puerto Rico and the island municipalities.

“We hope that the resolution passes. Members from all parties have co-authored this piece of legislation,” Santiago said. “We must begin to have a better conversation on how to manage the island municipalities’ transportation issues.”

The senator added that during the public hearing on SR 31, which seeks to investigate the HMS Ferries contract, she became concerned by Public-Private Partnerships Authority Executive Director Fermín Fontanés’ failure to provide essential information, such as when he could not answer a question like how much the agreement would cost the island in its first phase.

“He didn’t have the basic numbers to prove if this contract is healthy for the government,” Santiago said.

Popular Democratic Party Sen. Javier Aponte Dalmau, meanwhile, claimed that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia was not being honest when he said HMS Ferries would resolve the maritime transportation issue immediately. That isn’t what the contract says, the senator pointed out.

“This will be resolved by the ATM, according to a clause of the contract,” Aponte Dalmau said.

Furthermore, Puerto Rico Fast Ferries President Rick Newman said during a public hearing that he couldn’t find anything in the public-private agreement “that says to me that they [HMS Ferries] are responsible for putting in vessels, but that they assume responsibility for operating the eight arranged ATM vessels, and if they don’t have them, the ATM is looking for them.”

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