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Road leading to the capital of Puerto Rico at night.

A minimum of six areas of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure are in dire need to be reconstructed if the island is to reactivate its economic develop to effectively compete in the current globalized economy, according to the Puerto Rico College of Engineers and Surveyors (PRCES).

To jump start the reconstruction process the PRCES presented a plan detailing the specific infrastructure problems the island faces and its proposed solutions for reconstruction in a “planned and coherent way.”

“We are making plan available to those who are going to lead us into the future, state and municipal governments, and all who work rebuilding our country. Here we are providing the best expertise available at no cost to the government,” said Juan F. Alicea, president of the PRCES.

The engineers and surveyors identified six areas of the island’s infrastructure that need urgent attention: electric power, water, waste management, transportation, communications and structural seismic resilience. Also, two areas closely related to infrastructure, permits and economic development, were identified.

“Reconstruction plans should be aligned with the United Nations Goals for Sustainable Development in order to guarantee the people access to basic services within a framework of sustainability,” said Alicea.

Economic Development

The PRCES proposed plan identifies manufacturing as “the most important sector” of Puerto Rico’s economy, providing close to 50% of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP). Nevertheless, the sector has been affected by several factors that have made the island “less competitive or attractive” for investment when compared to other US jurisdictions. Those factors stem from the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement NAFTA in 1994, the repealing of corporate tax incentives from the US Revenue Code to companies establishing in Puerto Rico and other legislation at the state level.

For Puerto Rico to recover its competitiveness the PRCES recommends improving the power, water transportation infrastructure for manufacturing areas and import and export routes and the creation of modern industrial parks. The professionals’ organization also recommends providing the same benefits and incentives to manufacturing operations producing for both local consumption and for export.

Permits

According to the PRCES, the process of doing business in Puerto Rico has become so complicated that the island is now ranked 65 among Latin American and Caribbean countries, when 12 years ago was ranked 32.

“Our performance has been diminishing since we started revising and amending laws and permit regulations back in 2009,” said engineer Edgardo L. Santiago, who chaired the PRCES commission in charge of analyzing the permits situation.

Recommendations in this area specifically call for developing an auto-certification system, so that companies interested in establishing operations in Puerto Rico, and their consultants, be responsible of certifying their compliance with regulations in place. Questioned about the possibility of illegal or corrupt certifications, Santiago explained government authorities would verify compliance and stiff penalties and fines would be imposed to those who may have provided false information.

The recommendations also include amending several of laws and regulations to make the permits process one more efficient and expedite.

Energy

Around 96 % of Puerto Rico’s power generation depends mainly on fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) and only four percent is generated using renewable power sources.

Currently, the island’s electric infrastructure is in an unprecedented state of vulnerability, to which recent natural and atmospheric phenomena has greatly contributed. This, along with the lack of the necessary resources to finance improvements and the required maintenance have further contributed to further deteriorate an already fragile infrastructure.

Despite the fact Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) Integrated Resources Plan anticipates a significant reduction in electric power consumption for the near future due to population decline and a weakening economy, a $21 billion investment for the reconstruction of the island’s power system is needed to take it to the new industry standards.

According to Javier Quintana, chair of the PRCES energy commission, federal funds available to Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricanes and the 2019-20 earthquakes “provide us with a unique opportunity to invest in energy generation and transmission technologies that would ease our transition toward renewable energy sources.”

“Of course, the transition to new energy sources doesn’t mean that the existing infrastructure can be abandoned,” warned Quintana.

Recommendations included in the PRCES plan emphasize on the urgent maintenance to existing infrastructure to guarantee the continuous and reliable operation of the power system, promoting distributed renewable power sources to “effectively decongest” the power grid and quickly restore service after natural disasters, and train technicians and engineering professionals to develop the necessary skills to complete a successfully transition.

Water

Citing from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), engineer Carl Soderberg said Puerto Rico ranks 135th among 182 countries surveyed for their water availability per capita. More specifically, the island is the jurisdiction with less water available in the Caribbean, except for Haiti, which UNESCO has classified as suffering water stress.

According to Soderberg, a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Puerto Rico, a series of conditions have a direct impact on the island’s already limited water resources, among them the sedimentation on reservoirs, water loss and the contamination of subterranean waters (aquifers).

To avoid a major crisis, the PRCES recommends the dredging of the island’s reservoirs, and a reduction in water loss, both of processed drinking water and water for irrigation, among other actions. Water loss in Puerto Rico must be brought down from 60% to 17%, which is the acceptable international standard.

Waste Management

Puerto Rico is the country that the generates the greatest amount of waste per capita in the world, 5.6 pound per person per day. The island has 29 landfills –18 are open dumps and 11 are sanitary landfills– of which 13 operate under EPA monitoring. This situation, along with the island’s minimal ability to comply with federal recycling standards and the lack of resources, positions Puerto Rico on the verge of a waste management crisis since landfills are the only means it has to dispose of solid waste.

​To effectively deal with the situation the PRCES recommends reevaluating waste management legislation, waste collection and infrastructure, and the markets for recycled products.

PRCES also recommends evaluating the possible expansion of the existing landfills, acquisition of waste disposal technology based on management hierarchy. Other recommendations include developing programs for garden waste and compost, and the recycling of construction and demolition waste.

Transportation

Engineer Benjamín Colucci reported the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE-PR) graded the island’s bridges and highways with a D+ and D–, respectively, based on information provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the US Department of Transportation (USDOT).

Regarding the island’s bridges, both federal agencies classified 11.7% of the 2,325 bridges in use as being in “poor condition,” and 69% as being in “satisfactory condition.”

On the other hand, damages to the highway system were due to a combination of factors such as overloaded vehicles, lack of a preventive maintenance program and a poor storm draining system, among others.

PRCES’s recommendations to improve land transportation include legislation to allow for the circulation of autonomous and commercial vehicles on the island’s roads, development of a strategic maintenance and rehabilitation program of the transportation infrastructure, the incorporation of new materials and technologies in the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure, and making mass transit available, among other actions.

Earthquake resilience

Puerto Rico’s risk in terms of the probability of the occurrence of a seismic event is one of the highest in the Caribbean due to its geographic location –on the edge of the meeting of two tectonic plates, the North American and the Caribbean plates.

According to engineer Félix Rivera, chair of the PRCES commission on earthquakes the island’s response to such events must be based on developing action plans geared toward damage prevention and a coordinated response for damage mitigation. To that effect, PRCES recommends identifying essential structures (those considered necessary to effectively respond to the emergency and for the later rebuilding process), such as hospitals, shelters, schools and airports, among others, and retrofit them to make them compliant with updated construction codes. A 20-year retrofitting scheduled should also be put in place. “Nonetheless,” Rivera said, “there is no legislation in place to attend to this need.”

PRCES recognized that structures built in compliance with the 1987 Building Regulations can be considered safe, whereas those built before that date or not complying with said regulations could be considered at high risk.

Telecommunications

Puerto Rico’s telecommunications infrastructure was developed mainly by these services providers from the private sector, except for the infrastructure shared with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the period when the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) was owned and operated by the Commonwealth.

After Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the fragility of the telecommunications network became painfully clear. For several weeks most of the population was cutout from the rest of the world for lack of power. And this is one of the main challenges affecting this sector: not knowing the state of its own infrastructure.

According to the PRCES document, after Maria the press only informed about communication failures due to power loss. The same situation happened after the 2019-2020 series of seismic events.

PRCES recommends the first step to guarantee the continued operation of the telecommunications network is the updating of the statistical data in order to efficiently plan for its improvements.

Once reliable data is obtained, the technical aspects of the infrastructure should be revised taking into consideration performance, growth and the development of new businesses.

“We have taken up this project because the next decade is our chance, Puerto Rico’s chance, to join-in the global wave of sustainable development to achieve the development to which we aspire as a country,” said the engineers and surveyors president.

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