Puerto Rico braces for public transport shutdown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Puerto Rico's capital braced for a public transportation shutdown Monday, as lawmakers and administration officials held last-ditch talks to approve a crude oil tax hike that could keep San Juan's metropolitan area buses and commuter train running.

In what would be a major escalation of Puerto Rico's debt crisis, the local government is planning to shut down its bus and city train service after lawmakers were unable to agree to raise its oil tax by 68 percent to back a $2.9 billion bond sale.

"I depend on the bus for everything," said Mercedes Ortiz, 84, waiting at a bus stop in downtown San Juan to travel to a pharmacy to buy prescription medicine. "I'm against raising the oil tax because it will be a big blow to a lot of people, but I hope the governor does not stop the buses. I don't think its necessary."

The shutdown would impact an estimated 75,000 people who use the government's Metropolitan Bus Authority, the privately run MetroBus, the Tren Urbano commuter train service as well as a bus rapid transport (BRT) that brings commuters from west of San Juan, Transportation Secretary Miguel Torres Diaz said in written comments provided to Reuters Sunday.

It would impact 2,800 workers who work for the Highway & Transportation Authority as well as private companies contracted to service the private bus line, commuter train and BRT system. It would impact road repairs across the island and halt improvement work about to begin on major highways in San Juan and on the islands west and east coast, he added.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jose Nadal Power told Reuters that negotiations between the House leadership and Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla's office were continuing Sunday.

"The governor's office is working with leaders to come up with a solution tomorrow. Aside from the main topic, the oil tax, we must come up with a solution even it if is temporary,” Nadal Power said. "We are facing an emergency situation in terms of public transportation and a solution must be found."

Mayors of San Juan, Bayamon, Carolina and Catano were establishing contingency plans for municipal buses and trolleys to provide service for some major routes. Private public cars will also be allowed to pick up passengers on established bus routes. Union and management employees planned a protest outside the capital on Monday morning.

(Reporting by Reuters in Puerto Rico; Editing by Megan Davies, Bernard Orr)