Ports Authority opposes transfer of Mercedita Airport to Ponce
By The Star Staff
Puerto Rico Ports Authority Executive Director Joel Pizá Batiz on Wednesday rejected legislation that would transfer the assets and operations of Mercedita International Airport to the Ponce Port Authority.
The city of Ponce, on the other hand, stressed that it has a realistic plan that would allow for the regionalization of the facility.
Pizá Batiz participated in a public hearing of the Joint Committee for Public-Private Partnerships, chaired by Speaker of the House of Representatives Rafael Hernández Montañez, to discuss House Bill 1617. In his presentation, the Ports chief said other alternatives do not put the airport’s federal certifications and subsidies at risk.
“It is highly regulated … and it is a costly operation that the Ports Authority has been able to assume thanks to other sources of income, both from airports and other ports,” Pizá Batiz said.
He insisted that transferring the airport to the Ponce Port Authority would result in losing the certification granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Likewise, it would imply a risk of losing over $20 million in federal funds granted to the airport by the FAA. Pizá Batiz noted that the Ports Authority, as owner and manager of federal funds assigned to regional airports, was obliged to comply with an agreement that prevents the transfer of power and control over the airport to a third party.
“To combat economic challenges, economically develop the southern region, promote tourism and job creation, initiatives can be implemented such as the development of hotels, restaurants, retail establishments and other commercial developments,” Pizá Batiz pointed out.
“In this way, the southern municipalities will be able to fulfill the purpose pursued by HB 1617 and meet their needs without jeopardizing what the Ports Authority has achieved so far,” he added.
The official said Mercedita Airport generates between $1.2 million and $1.5 million annually. The Ports Authority, the current airport operator, allocates around $14 million in maintenance, Pizá Batiz said.
There is a five-year economic development plan for the airport. Some of the improvements already made, with an investment of $16 million, include the expansion of the waiting area, expansion of the west taxiway, rehabilitation of the roof waterproofing system and reconstruction of the terminal building, among others.
Currently, the airport’s most important project is the runway reconstruction after the damage suffered by the 2020 earthquakes. Pizá Batiz announced that the reconstruction should be completed in 2024.
Hernández Montañez highlighted that the legislative intention is not for the Municipality of Ponce to administer or manage the operations of the airport, but rather for real estate assets to be transferred and, in this way, for the municipality to be able to carry out a competitive process to hire an operator.
“What we want is to establish a public policy to give participation to the city [of Ponce],” Hernández Montañez said. “We are going to see how far we can go in giving them that participation, which may be that they are given priority within the process [of selecting an operator].”
“What we want to look for is how we can write something that we give, and I will be very clear, an advantage and an opportunity for the city of Ponce to participate in this,” he added.
Pizá Batiz pointed out that the Ports Authority favors privatizing the airport to an entity that “has the experience, knowledge and economic capacity that can pass the screening and approval of the FAA.”
Ponce Mayor Luis Irizarry Pabón said the Municipality of Ponce supported the transfer of the airport’s assets over a period of five years, as established in the measure.
Likewise, he stressed that the city council has defined a “realistic plan” to transfer the airport to the Ponce Port Authority under an administrative model that allows it to regionalize the airport’s development.