The Department of Highways and Transportation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico retained O’Neill and Associates for federal strategic services at the beginning of a long highway transit project approval and federal process. Puerto Rico previously had never pursued federal funding for any project of the magnitude of Tren Urbano. The project called for and now consists of 16 stations along 15 miles of tracks linking the city of San Juan to municipalities and financial and educational center west of the capital.
Dependency on automobile use in Puerto Rico has led many families to expand nearly 40 percent of their net income on owning and maintaining multiple vehicles. The burden of such economic costs and the debilitating congestion and environmental impacts needed to be confronted with a modern mass transit solution. Persuading the Federal Transit Administration, the United States Congress and the local population that this was the best alternative to dealing with these problems represented an enormous legislative, public relations and community relations challenge.
O’Neill and Associates helped the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico build support for the project through a carefully crafted and executed combination of government, community and public relations. Given that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico does not pay any federal gasoline tax into the U.S. Highway Trust Fund, and that it does not possess voting representation in the U.S. Congress, O’Neill and Associates had to develop an extraordinarily unique approach to gaining federal funding so that the project could go forward.
The challenge lay in molding public perception—showing public transportation as a modern, reliable and economically sensible way to travel. The public and community relations efforts consisted of education processes involving public meetings, one-on-one sessions with decision makers, media relations to ensure a constant stream of positive press and production of collateral materials including videos, print advertisements and presentations.
The island government had not previously developed a community affairs strategy to develop support for a transit project. O’Neill and Associates developed key messages that included the centrality of the project to a modern rapid transit system and positioning the project as an asset that would make Puerto Rico a “leading light” in the region, possessing the engineering and transportation envy of the other Caribbean island economies. Additional messages promoted the projected enhancement of the local economy and increased employment. O’Neill and Associates provided extensive outreach to the private sector, including Banco Popular, the largest financial institution based in the Caribbean.
As a result of O’Neill and Associates’ communications and government relations campaign, a $306 million full-funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration was achieved, as well as a $300 million TIFIA loan through the US Department of Transportation.
Today, Tren Urbano is composed of 16 stations along 10 miles of track connecting San Juan to its western suburbs. With a daily ridership exceeding 40,000 commuters, the next phase of the project may add additional lines and connect to other train, bus and ferry routes.
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