Light Rail San Juan

San Juan Unveils Plan for “Walkable City,” Hopes for Light Rail on Isleta

» Perhaps permanently abandoning hopes for an extension of the Tren Urbano, San Juan proposes light rail program. Implementation would coincide with a massive redevelopment of the Isleta and Old San Juan.

The enormous increase in construction costs for the Tren Urbano, which opened in late 2004, likely doomed any serious short-term hope of extending the rail corridor’s reach into San Juan’s historic center. What was supposed to be a $1.25 billion rapid transit line carrying well over 100,000 riders a day somehow morphed into an exercise in under-performance, with only 40,000 daily passengers transported on a guideway that cost $2.5 billion to build, arguably making it the most expensive North American public transportation project of the early 2000s.

The 10.7-mile Tren Urbano — an automated, metro-class train system — has an extension north to Miramar on the books. But the enormous expense of building such a project and the limited patience of the Federal Transit Administration, which offered up much of the initial funds, has encouraged local efforts to try something else.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini’s proposal is his Walkable City plan, released last week with the goal of advancing up to $1.5 billion of redevelopment on the city’s Isleta thanks to a $400 million investment in a light rail connection between the Tren Urbano terminus at Sagrado Corazón and Old San Juan. In addition to spurring 16 million square feet of new buildings, the 5.3-mile Tren Liviano (light rail) would induce a population explosion, expanding San Juan island’s citizenry from 8,000 today to almost 25,000 (the city overall has more than 400,000 inhabitants). Mayor Santini projects that the transformation could be completed in fifteen years.

The light rail line would run in its own right-of-way and require the conversion of several streets to pedestrian and transit malls; stops would be located less than half a mile apart. Construction could theoretically proceed in two phases: First, from Old San Juan to the Convention Center along 2.1 miles of route, then second to Sagrado Corazón.

It may be foolish to build another form of rail transit in a city that has been reluctant to accept what’s already in operation. The projections of 40,000 daily users for the light rail line could be just as optimistic as were those for the Tren Urbano ten years ago. It’s always problematic to force riders to transfer between modes during their daily commutes. And there are certainly aspects of this transit proposal, such as a confusing and inefficient loop around facilities in the Convention Center area, that could use refinement.

Serious proposals for a light rail extension into the oldest part of Puerto Rico’s largest city have been around since 2007. San Juan had streetcars in the past, though they were torn up as automobile commuters increased their influence. There are currently no sources of funds for any of the projects being considered.

Yet the effort to articulate the train program as an integral element of a larger attempt to shape development in San Juan is intriguing and potentially vital to defending the importance of its future construction. The mayor’s proposal makes a strong point: Showing how a full-scale reconstruction of the Isleta could proceed, the document argues that the opening of the light rail and its five stations along the island would coincide with the development of a waterfront promenade, a pedestrianization of many areas in Old San Juan, and the revitalization of the now-poor San Agustin district. Mayor Santini’s proposal is to fundamentally remake the look and feel of the current city through the provision of alternative transportation offerings. The plan would improve the city’s physical environment with an emphasis on livable urbanism.

It is this direct integration of transportation and land use goals that makes San Juan’s project especially interesting. If the two efforts are to be addressed together — as they always should be — then a change in thinking on one issue must be followed by a reevaluation of the other. San Juan may or may not find the funds to complete a light rail line into its oldest neighborhoods, but if it ever does, it will have a strong framework for plotting out related future growth.

Image above: Potential San Juan light rail alignment, from Municipality of San Juan’s Walkable City