Maritime transportation, supply shortage issues in island municipalities fall on ‘deaf ears’

Viequenses say ATM chief has yet to meet with them; rally at Capitol called for Wednesday

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Although the Puerto Rico government has committed itself to improving the maritime transportation system of Vieques and Culebra during the current four-year term after years of complaints, residents of the island municipalities continue to face travel delays and supply shortages due to mechanical damage to vessels.

In an interview with the STAR, Somos Más Que 100x35 (We Are More Than 100x35) spokesperson Elda Guadalupe said Monday that Viequenses who woke up at 5 a.m. had their trips delayed after both the Mr. Mason vessel and the Marilin H. barge broke down over the weekend.

Guadalupe told the newspaper that the Mr. Mason, a vessel owned by Puerto Rico Fast Ferries, “had a problem with the ramp and could not make trips yesterday [Sunday].”

The barge Marilin H., which costs around $23,500 per day to operate, had fallen behind schedule after mechanical issues developed with its tugboat during a “triangle trip,” the Vieques resident said.

“It took a little more than 12 hours to finish that trip, which is normally from Ceiba to Vieques, from Vieques to Culebra, and from Culebra to the Isla Grande again,” she said. “For Culebra, it takes almost five hours, for Vieques, which is a shorter oceanic route, it takes almost two or three hours.”

Guadalupe said the barge’s slowness has affected the arrival of supplies in both island municipalities and makes it difficult for residents with ground vehicles to run errands in Puerto Rico properly.

“I counted more than 15 supply trucks when we arrived in Isla Grande for a medical appointment, and I couldn’t even count the cars that were waiting to leave for the island municipalities,” Guadalupe said. “From what I could see, there was the bread truck waiting, there was the milk truck, and many others I could not identify.”

Regarding complaints made Saturday by Vieques social communicator and cultural manager Diana Ramos Gutiérrez through Twitter, where she indicated that the island had run out of gasoline, Guadalupe told the STAR that at least four fuel trucks had arrived at two gas stations on Sunday.

“But a girl who works at one of the gas stations told me they ran out,” she said. “Now we wait to see when we get more fuel.”

When the STAR asked why Viequenses are facing fuel shortages so frequently, Guadalupe said it is due mostly to shipments being shared between the two offshore island municipalities, the municipal administration not having the appropriate resources for disembarking trucks, and the presence of tourists on the island amid the crisis.

“The Maritime Transportation Authority [ATM by its Spanish initials] ferries that can easily disembark all types of trucks are broken down and in dry dock waiting for the authority to pay for the vessels to get fixed,” she said. “Two are located at a Tampa dry dock and another one at a St. Thomas dry dock.”

“Instead of the government doing something to get these ferries [back on line], which are big enough and capable of carrying up to 25 vehicles and 200 people, they end up renting vessels that are not enough to fulfill our needs,” Guadalupe added.

As for Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia saying in his recent State of the Commonwealth message that he was committed to warp-speeding the ATM’s 23-year public-private agreement with HMS Ferries, Hilcia Guadalupe, who is Elda Guadalupe’s sister, told the STAR she wasn’t surprised that he left Mara Pérez, who resigned on March 13 amid civil protests, in place as the ATM executive director once he became governor-elect back in November.

“She will always say she did the best she could, as she had the duty to put the ATM in private hands; let’s just say she fulfilled her goal,” Hilcia Guadalupe said. “But that does not mean that we residents don’t know what to do now and how to apply pressure for the contract to be repealed.”

“That contract doesn’t help us a bit; that contract is illegal and many of us know it as the agreement was done behind closed doors thanks to Act 29,” she added, referring to the law that allows the government to negotiate with private entities to provide services to governmental agencies.

“That law is the reason why the LUMA Energy contract exists,” Hilcia Guadalupe said. “We won’t give up no matter what Pierluisi has to say because it is our right to protect our only road and we need that road to work.”

When the STAR asked if islanders have received any response from ATM Executive Director Jorge Droz after the demonstrations that took place on March 30, she said Droz was “willing to meet with them, but has not sent any response.”

“Neither a written response nor a phone call has been made to the contacts that appear in the claims that were delivered to him,” she said. “It’s the same deal as always, our issues fall on deaf ears, and we end up facing shortages again.”

“We are aware that machines are bound to fail, that’s comprehensible,” Hilcia Guadalupe added. “What can’t be understood is how the only two vessels available are not in optimal condition.”

She also told the STAR that the Cayo Blanco vessel, which is owned by the ATM, can only make trips for a limited time given that the U.S. Coast Guard issued a 90-day permit.

Hilcia Guadalupe said the vessel, which has the capacity to carry up to 500 people, can only take around 200 as “half of the ship is not allowed to be used” due to insulation problems.

“We are facing a large-scale administration issue, and our question is if no one from the government will be held accountable for all of these years of bad management, where we see every ship that they own in dry docks and the service being constantly interrupted,” she said.

Meanwhile, Vieques Mayor José Corcino asked Droz in a letter for “concrete and detailed information” on the whereabouts of the broken down ATM vessels and their approximate dates of return.

“I remind you that we still have a fragile transportation system that, today [Monday], failed again,” Corcino said. “We are tired of promises and we don’t see solutions.”

Moreover, the mayor urged the ATM chief to inform him on what alternate plans the agency has for attending to the islanders’ needs.

“I hope to receive an answer and a swift action plan about these issues as both my people and myself are waiting for a reply,” Corcino said in the letter. “I need for you to have a final solution to a problem that has dragged on for years.”

“I remind you. Waiting is unpleasant,” he added.

Vieques and Culebra residents called for a demonstration Wednesday in front of the Capitol in Puerta de Tierra to demand adequate maritime transportation.

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