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Tren Urbano breaks new ground

Snarled traffic and air pollution are the bane of many large metropolitan areas. But lack of money and political will aren't the only things preventing the overhaul of these metropolitan transportation networks. For many of the cities that could benefit most, this kind of project demands another commodity they just don't have -- technical expertise.

A joint MIT/University of Puerto Rico (UPR) program created to tackle one such project -- designing, building and maintaining Tren Urbano, an urban rail transit system in San Juan -- has been so successful that the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) recently designated it as a model project for its new national technology transfer program. The agency sponsored a symposium on the topic in Baltimore in November.

MIT research under the Tren Urbano Technology Transfer Program has run the gamut from traditional civil engineering, like underground tunneling, to marketing approaches aimed at luring commuters out of their cars and onto trains. But the undercurrent of the research is really teaching a generation of Puerto Ricans who will manage the new rail system and plan future projects.

"The goal is to develop a cadre of Puerto Rican transportation professionals who can operate, manage and, in the future, plan and design extensions of Tren Urbano," said Professor Nigel H.M. Wilson of civil and environmental engineering. "This is expertise that doesn't now exist there. But by the time Tren Urbano begins operating in 2001, they'll have people who have come through the technology transfer program and been placed in management positions."

He runs the MIT project, along with Frederick P. Salvucci, a lecturer in the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS), who was Massachusetts secretary of transportation for 12 years. Some of the large public transportation systems they've planned, including the Puerto Rican transportation authority, are led by their former students.


San Juan is a dense metropolitan area with 1.3 million people packed into a 400-square-mile area. It has the highest concentration of vehicles per mile of paved road in the world; 50 percent of its highways and streets are congested during rush hours. Its only public transportation consists of buses and publicos, which are individually owned and operated vans that run somewhat regular routes on very irregular schedules. A 12-mile commute routinely takes well over an hour to drive. Nobody walks in San Juan and few people car pool.

The Tren Urbano rail system will alleviate some of that traffic when Phase One (16 stations along a 12-mile track) opens in 2001. That trip will take just 25 minutes.

MIT has been involved since 1993, when the project was still in the planning stages. That early involvement has given MIT graduate students an unprecedented opportunity to become familiar with all phases of a major transportation infrastructure project.

Since the program began, 12 faculty and research staff, 35 graduate students and 11 UROP students have participated. They come from seven disciplines: transportation, geotech-nical and structural engineering, construction management, information technology, urban planning and architecture.

In addition to supervising student research, several research staff members spend time on-site in San Juan, advising professional staff there and coordinating research with each stage of the construction.

But Professor Wilson stresses that the primary objective of the project is technology transfer -- that cadre of highly skilled, bilingual, transportation professionals who will go on to manage Tren Urbano and take on other transportation projects throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.


The technology transfer program involves three organizations: MIT, the University of Puerto Rico and the Tren Urbano management.

About 15 students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and 10 MIT students are introduced to the project each year. They attend a 10-day summer course at MIT on Public Transportation in Boston, where they're exposed to the MBTA and given a chance to form opinions on what to imitate and what to avoid. The summer course is coordinated by Kenneth Kruckemeyer, an architect, researcher and lecturer affiliated with CTS and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

During the winter, MIT students head to San Juan to see the project firsthand and take another intensive course organized by Dr. Antonio Gonz������������������lez, who manages the UPR Tren Urbano program. The UPR students, as well as a few bilingual MIT students, take summer internships related to their research interests, and many get hired at Tren Urbano or its subcontractors after graduation.

"The 90-100 UPR students who will come through this program will considerably strengthen Puerto Rico's capacity to export this transit knowledge," said Mr. Salvucci. "There's already one case -- a proposed transit system for Cali, Colombia that's recruited people from Tren Urbano. So there is some verification for our hypothesis that the expertise of Spanish-speaking transit professionals is exportable."

The MIT research group recruits a cross-section of MIT students, including Spanish-speaking students from Puerto Rico and elsewhere. One of them, Angela Alba-Carb������������������ of Maya-g������ez, Puerto Rico, received the SM in geotechnical engineering in 1997. For her thesis research, she predicted how the soil would settle following tunneling excavations for one of Tren Urbano's underground stations. She now works for a Boston company involved with Tren Urbano.

Francisco Ortiz, a DUSP graduate student from Argentina with a degree in architecture, is studying the microclimatic elements of station design -- how design elements such as windows can enhance or work against natural elements like sunshine. This is especially important in San Juan, where the tropical climate allows for both open-air and air-conditioned stations.

This is Mr. Ortiz's second year on the project; he did a summer internship in San Juan. Working on the project has helped intensify his desire to work on transportation issues in urban planning, perhaps back in his native city of Buenos Aires.

"The real value of this research project is being exposed to so many professionals and students doing different kinds of research on a real project," said Mr. Ortiz. "When we go to San Juan we can see the real problems; the city's being torn apart [by congestion]. You can see that not too long ago it was probably a beautiful city."

Another DUSP graduate student, Charles Planck, is working on a marketing plan for Tren Urbano. "The biggest marketing problem is the image of transit in San Juan, in part because the bus system has not performed well, but also because people have issues about social status," he said.

"I think there are two things that will affect the success: getting senior management to understand that marketing isn't just fluff, and making the marketing effort inclusive of people outside the agency, like business and community leaders."

Mr. Planck, who worked on international emergency response and pre-disaster planning for CARE before coming to MIT, said he would be interested in consulting on transportation projects in Latin America after graduation.

"Given my background and where I want to go, this research project is a perfect fit for me and I was glad to find it. It's solidified my interest in transportation," he said.


"At a cost of $1.5 billion for Phase I, this is expected to be one of the most cost-effective transit investments in the United States," said Mr. Salvucci. "And because it's the first design/build/operate project in the United States, it's a fertile area for research."

Design/build/operate describes the Puerto Rican transportation authority's unusual arrangement with the consortium of companies it hired to design, build and operate the system for the first 10 years.

"Traditionally there haven't been close working relationships between universities and transit agencies," said Professor Wilson. "The transit agency must have sufficiently enlightened leaders. In this case, two of the individuals heading the government agencies involved have PhDs and come from university positions. That's very unusual."

He's referring to Dr. Carlos Pesquera, Puerto Rico's secretary of transportation, and Dr. Sergio Gonz������������������lez (SB '85, SM, PhD), head of the highway and transportation authority, both UPR faculty members. They had the foresight to include and budget the technology transfer program as an integral part of the Tren Urbano transit project.

"The FTA is interested because they see this project as a model for getting value out of the funds they provide to both types of organizations," said Professor Wilson.

He admits that some aspects of the collaborative program might be difficult to duplicate. "To work, the technology transfer program must be interdisciplinary in nature. It also requires people in the university who have experience in the real world, like Fred Salvucci and Ken Kruckemeyer. And it depends on the ability of university researchers to spend a considerable amount of time at the research site. Faculty can't really do this; you must have some dedicated research staff," he said.

While it sounds like MIT may be the only university that could truly qualify for the technology transfer program, "the involvement of a university local to a project is crucial," said Professor Wilson.

"MIT was in a unique position to be a pioneer, to set the precedent and be cited as a model," said Mr. Salvucci. "It ought to be possible now for other university transportation centers to replicate it on a regional basis."

MIT research on the project is sponsored by F.R. Harris, one of the consortium of companies involved in the design/build/operate function of Tren Urbano.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 4, 1998.

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