San Juan, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is to receive nearly $6 billion in federal stimulus money and plans to focus on renovating schools, roads and public housing, the U.S. territory’s public utilities director said.
The projects are expected to create a high number of jobs, although temporary ones, said Jose Ortiz Vazquez, who is overseeing distribution of the stimulus money.
The Caribbean island of nearly 4 million people is struggling through its third year of recession and has an unemployment rate of more than 15 percent.
Ortiz said Wednesday that Puerto Rico has received $539 million so far from the $787 billion package aimed at resuscitating the U.S. economy. That doesn’t include $600 million in checks that are going out beginning this week to people who qualify for a one-time $300 payment.
Plans have been drawn up for upgrading roads, sewage systems and public housing, Ortiz said. The government also will improve bathrooms, roofs and handicapped access at more than 200 schools across the island.
Ortiz said some of the money would be used to help poor or unemployed Puerto Ricans. The nearly 1.2 million people who use food stamps already are getting an additional $25 a month and those receiving unemployment benefits are to be paid an additional $25 a week, he said.
Economist Argeo Quinones cautioned against investing too much in infrastructure. He said the money will provide some relief amid a recession, but he urged the government to develop a long-term economic growth plan.
“When you are talking about limited resources like ours, with an extremely high level of inequality and poverty, you cannot simply invest in more bridges, more roads, more schools, more hospitals,” he said. “You need to have an idea of where you want to go.”
Ortiz disagreed, saying new laws that strengthen public-private relations and accelerate the permit process for private construction will help keep the economy buoyant after the funds run out.
Hector Ferrer, leader of the island’s main opposition party, praised how most of the money was being used.
But like Quinones, he said would like to see a long-term growth plan that capitalizes on the money available.