Oversight board certifies updated HTA Fiscal Plan that includes annual toll hikes
By The Star Staff
The Financial Oversight and Management Board has certified the updated fiscal plan for the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority (HTA) that calls for highway toll fare increases by at least 8.3% every year and the transfer of the Urban Train to another entity.
The oversight board said the fiscal plan promotes significant investments to improve the condition of Puerto Rico’s road system, stabilizes the public corporation’s finances, and supports HTA’s exit from bankruptcy.
“Puerto Rico’s transportation system lags national standards for quality, safety, and reliability because it suffered from years of underinvestment. The HTA Fiscal Plan creates a solid financial foundation to ensure repair, maintenance, and future investment to ensure the mobility of residents and allow businesses to move goods efficiently,” the oversight board said. “Therefore, regular fare increases are necessary to ensure adequate and continued maintenance. Each year HTA fails to implement these increases, fare pricing falls increasingly out of step with inflation and the cost of maintaining roads.”
The oversight board said further that the HTA needs to maximize federal funds. A successful grant strategy can enable the commonwealth to get its fair share of nearly $100 billion in net new federal discretionary transportation funds over the next five years, the board said.
“Puerto Rico cannot advance from its current recovery to sustainable economic growth if Puerto Ricans don’t have good roads to travel on,” said Oversight Board Chairman David Skeel.
“The transportation system must undergo significant reform to reduce congestion, support road safety, and foster economic development,” he said. “The HTA Fiscal Plan defines the reforms necessary to put HTA on healthy fiscal footing and to provide Puerto Rico with a modern and efficient transportation system.”
Only 13% of Puerto Rico’s highways are in good condition, compared to a median of 84% in the mainland U.S.
Fatality rates, meanwhile, are about 43% higher than the U.S. median. Residents rely on private vehicles for transportation because of a lack of a reliable mass transportation system, increasing congestion.
Traffic congestion in San Juan costs each driver $1,150 each year, the oversight board said.
To improve the current state of disrepair, underinvestment, and inefficiencies, the HTA Fiscal Plan outlines a comprehensive reorganization. The plan is the roadmap to the restructuring from the current inefficient state, where several different agencies have overlapping control and responsibilities.
The oversight board said the HTA must separate construction and maintenance responsibility of toll from non-toll roads by establishing a Toll Management Office that will be exclusively responsible for toll roads.
The HTA must transfer the Tren Urbano (Urban Train) to the Puerto Rico Integrated Transit Authority (PRITA), the board said. The fiscal plan empowers the HTA to execute a $11.6 billion capital investment program between the current fiscal year of 2022 and 2051 across highways and transit, prioritizing restoration of the highway system to a state of good repair.
Enhancing toll fares and fines through modest, annual price increases and performance improvement accounts for $4.7 billion of the $6 billion, Skeel noted.
“HTA has not adjusted toll fares for HTA-owned toll roads since 2005, leaving HTA unable to keep toll roads in the condition Puerto Rican drivers and businesses expect and deserve,” the oversight board said. “Regular fare increases are necessary to ensure adequate and continued maintenance. To make up for the deficits of years of underinvesting, fares must increase by 8.3% every year to compensate for and ‘catch up’ with the lack of increases from the current fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2024. By fiscal year 2025, the annual increase will diminish to inflation plus 1.5%.”
The fiscal plans contain an annual transfer from the commonwealth government that supports the HTA’s non-toll roads, and transit assets cover their operational expenses and address their capital needs.
Later on Wednesday, HTA Executive Director Edwin González Montalvo said he does not agree with the increase in the toll rate approved by the oversight board.
“The HTA does not agree with the increase in the toll rate included by the [oversight board] in the Certified Fiscal Plan as proposed regarding this increase,” González Montalvo said in a written statement. “The HTA is aware that the toll rate has not been increased since 2005 for highways managed by the HTA, and that any changes must be tied to improvements and efficiencies in our roads. At the moment we are evaluating other alternatives, since our proposal was aimed at raising the same amount with less impact on the citizens’ pockets.”