‘No transparency here’
Activists protest toll station they say has been planned without public consultation
By Richard Gutiérrez
The cost of living in Puerto Rico has gone up significantly in recent years, with many things becoming more expensive, and this is also true for highway tolls.
Island residents have protested hikes in the electricity bill in the past, and in 2015 people protested a general rise in taxes from 7% to 16%. Therefore, it is no surprise that there’s a group organized specifically to combat the rise in traffic tolls, a group known as No mas peajes Guaynabo (No More Tolls for Guaynabo).
The activist organization, led by environmentalist and community leader Myrna Conty, held a press conference on Wednesday along the Martínez Nadal Expressway under the bridge in the Piedras Blancas neighborhood, where they were protesting the construction of a new toll station on the highway in the direction of “La Muda” and PR-1 North Street.
“This new construction has not been consulted with the people, and this construction site has absolutely zero signage from the government,” Ángel González, a spokesperson for No More Tolls for Guaynabo told the STAR. “We are here warning the people about the plans these people have to build this and, secondly, it is absolutely unfair to the people of Puerto Rico.”
González said that if it wasn’t for TV star “El Guitarreño,” they wouldn’t have found out about the project, either.
“There has been no public hearing; there is not a single sign on the road that states that they are working on a new toll [station] site,” he said. “This government expresses so freely that they like to talk with open doors, but there is no transparency here. We believe this is a violation of the law, to construct a new toll site without informing the people first and foremost.”
The spokesperson added that “this toll would affect anyone coming from San Patricio to Guaynabo South, and PR-1 North Street toward Caguas and Aguas Buenas, which includes neighborhoods such as: Camarones, Mamey, Hato Nuevo, Guaraguao, Bo. Río Sonadora, Lomas del Sol and 173 Street.”
A noteworthy detail related by the activists is that according to the Guaynabo municipality, not even the mayor knew about the new toll site.
Apart from the injustice of not informing the people about the new construction site, the activists worry about the economic impact that a new toll station is going to have on the people, considering that every year toll rates have risen, among the plethora of other expenses that are weighing on islanders. They believe that adding a new toll station would raid the people’s pockets even more.
“This is supposed to be a free street; it was made to give people of these communities’ access to another street without having to take all the twists and turns of the mountain. Many of the people who live in these neighborhoods are low-income folks, so their budget is already tight, adding an extra weight to an already tight budget is absolutely unfair,” Conty told the STAR. “The worst part is that they’re setting up the ‘invisible’ toll site right after the ramp that drops from the Piedras Blancas Bridge at kilometer 6.8 to the Martinez Nadal highway, which affects people who come from Santa Rosa as well; these people would be paying $1 for [traveling] two kilometers of the street, which is outrageous.”
Another concern expressed by the activists is that if the government starts implementing tolls with one “free” street, they will use that as a precedent to continue implementing tolls in other streets that don’t have tolls.
“People have been passing through this street for free for over 20 years; if we let them start charging tolls on a street that has been free for over 20 years, what do you think is going to happen to all the other streets, like [Highway] 30 from Caguas to Humacao?” said Guaynabo resident Efraín Irizarry, a retired highway engineer. “If a city that has an active group like us denouncing these things lets this come to fruition, then less-active municipalities won’t stand a chance.”
Irizarry added that he’s “tried to gather the paperwork for this project, which would include official permits, but unfortunately this has not been possible.”
He also believes that in the case of this project, “the purpose is to simply gather as much money as possible without any concern for the individual economic situation of the drivers.” Irizarry went into detail about the economics of the project, stating that “if over 20,000 cars a day pass by the toll site from the north, this would equal up to $5.2 million a year.”
The activists also had things to say about the overall unfairness of highway tolls.
“Tolls act as a regressive tax, which means everyone pays the same amount of money for them, but not everyone MAKES the same amount of money,” González said. “It’s the most unfair form of taxation for the citizenry. When you take a look at the facts, over 50% of the population is under the poverty line; it’s preposterous that they want to implement these tolls.”
No More Tolls Guaynabo called on all island residents to sign a petition that is circulating on the internet directed specifically to Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia. The petition/letter is also available on their Facebook page “No mas Peajes en Guaynabo.” For additional assistance people can email the group at email@example.com. The activists also called on the people to raise their voices by writing letters to La Fortaleza and stating their opinions on radio shows.