Aug. 15, 2002 – The Public Works Department got put on the hot seat for several hours Thursday as the Senate Government Operations Committee raised questions about progress, or lack thereof, on various road projects, some of them decades in the making.
The agenda called for focusing on Havensight/Long Bay road improvements on St. Thomas and the Midland/Calquohoun road and Christiansted bypass projects on St. Croix. But the committee ranged far afield from the proposed veterans' cemetery on St. Thomas to the recently dedicated fish market on St. Croix in voicing other concerns.
Early on, Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood pointed out a major roadblock to repair efforts: He told the committee chair, Sen. Emmett Hansen II, that there are no funds for local repairs in the Fiscal Year 2003 budget approved last week by the Finance Committee.
"We can plan, but we can't do repair without funding," Callwood said. "We can plan and design and lobby to re-establish the road fund. It's depleted. There are lots of projects appropriated, but they aren't funded. We aren't able to get the money released to the department."
Hansen said he would be putting his Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001, which the governor vetoed last month, back on the Senate floor for another go-round. Thirteen senators voted for the bill, but Hansen couldn't get enough support for an override of the veto. His proposal is to set aside a portion of property taxes each year to be used for road repairs, street lighting and potable water maintenance.
The long-time Long Bay project
Sen. Carlton Dowe again asked, as he has been doing for months, about the status of $18 million in high-priority federal funds for the Long Bay project that he says has been sitting somewhere for more than 10 years awaiting use.
Aloy Nielsen, Public Works director of highway engineering, gave an overview of the project, tracing its history from 1984. Extending from the Windward Passage Hotel to Raphune Hill, it won approval for Federal Highway Administration funding. He said the project has three segments — Long Bay to Mandela Circle, Windward Passage Hotel to Long Bay road, and Mandela Circle to Raphune Hill.
So far, the FHA has approved $24 million for the Long Bay-Mandela Circle portion, with the entire project pegged at $72 million, Nielsen said. Design work for the segment from Long Bay to Mandela Circle and southeast into to Havensight has been contracted to URS Engineering Consultants and is estimated to cost $14 million, he said. The territory received $6 million in additional funding under the new federal Transporation Act, TEA-21, Neilsen said.
Senators wanted to know why the project has taken so many years, with little to show for it. "There's been 11 years back and forth," Dowe said. "I want to know what's happened."
Nielsen blamed delays on changes in administration and the sale of the old Yacht Haven Hotel. He said the Yacht Haven developer, PRM Realty Group, requested several changes in the project and proposed that part of the construction be on the hotel property. After waiting about six months for a response from PRM which was never received, he said, DPW told its consultant to proceed with finalizing its own plans.
Dowe and Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole asked why they waited six months. Cole said, "I could see waiting a week or two, but six months?"
Public Works officials described $4 million worth of studies that have been done on the project. Dowe asked them to submit the study findings to the committee, along with a timetable for the work. Department officials "need to keep the public informed on a continual basis on this project," he said.
Hansen said, "It is important that we get these projects moving forward. Whatever needs to be done to see these projects come to fruition, let's get it done."
Right-of-way acquisitions and easements present the "greatest impediment" to the Long Bay project, a Public Works official said. Initial plans called for the acquisition of 78 parcels, and another 59 became necessary for flood mitigation. Of the 137 total, he said, 79 acquisitions are incomplete but are targeted for completion by the end of this year.
The DPW officials said hiring appraisers for the acquisitions is difficult because the work is tedious and complex. There are very few certified general appraisers in the territory, and even fewer want to work on St. Croix, they said.
'High priority' funds sitting unused
Cole asked about the "high priority" funds going unused for years. "What is the posture of the federal government on letting this money sit around for so long? What does 'high priority' mean?" he asked.
Keith Richards, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's director of capital projects, said the money consisted of "demonstration funds." He said, "Lots of funds in the States have been unused longer than ours."
Cole's response was: "I don't care what's going on in Arizona or Texas. I want to know about the V.I."
Richards said the federal government "would like to see us spend the money, but they have been very supportive of giving us more money than the $12.9 million that the V.I. gets annually."
When Cole asked what would happen to the funds, should a new administration take over, Richards replied, "A new administration is not a problem. You have nothing to fear."
When the present administration came into office, Cole told Richards, "The bases were already filled. You just needed the cleanup hitter."
Sen. Roosevelt David used his 10 minutes to campaign for Turnbull, a fellow Democrat. Hansen tolerated the rhetoric despite his own run-ins with the governor over his infrastructure bill and another increasing penalties for crimes involving firearms.
Sugar Estate, cemetery and St. John concerns
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel was critical of the appearance of Long Bay Road. "We have our tourists coming off the boat walking by there in the road, no sidewalks. That looks awful," she said. She also demanded to know what was happening with what she referred to as a road Public Works tore up and failed to put back together in Sugar Estate, where she lives. Eventually, Callwood told her that he was aware of the situation but the Office of Management and Budget has not released the funds to complete the work.
Pickard-Samuel also wondered why the administration doesn't respond to the federal government about the planned veterans' cemetery. A federal grant has been approved for it, but the "feds are waiting for a response from the V.I. government," she said. "The grant is for all the states, not just us, and if we don't claim it, we will lose it."
Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd, a St. John resident, asked about road projects on his island. Nielsen said, "We are currently working on the Coral Bay Road, which includes the Bordeaux Road." He said Phase 1 of that project has just been completed, and Phase 2 will be put out for bid in the next month. "The Bordeaux Road is the worst in the territory," Liburd said. "I'm glad to see this project get on line."
Bypass project dating from 1970s
In his update on the Christiansted bypass project, Nielsen said Public Works is updating plans and specifications to construct the first phase, around the south side of Christiansted, at an estimated cost of $13.6 million. More than half of the money will come from the federal high priority funds, he said.
The project includes construction of two 12-foot-wide lanes, paved shoulders and a sidewalk and curb on the north side. An additional passing lane is proposed for one uphill section at the east end of the road, he said.
The bypass project has been around even longer than the Long Bay one. Neilsen said a final environmental impact sta
tement was prepared in 1976, and final design activities have been ongoing since 1985. Last year, at a public Coastal Zone Management hearing, it was determined that 59 additional parcels of land needed to be acquired to provide for flood zone mitigation.
Nielsen said right-of-way appraisals should be completed around the end of the first quarter of 2003, and the project should be advertised for bids in the second quarter.
Regarding the Midland/Calquohoun road, Neilsen said application has been made to DPNR for a construction permit and that the FHA must review the plans and estimates before authorizing funding.
He said the project "will be advertised for bids immediately after the FHA authorizes funding," which he said should occur in September. After that, he said, "The construction period will be eight months and is anticipated to cost $3.2 million."
Committee members present were Sen. Cole, David, Dowe, Hansen, and Pickard-Samuel. Sen. Adelbert Bryan was absent and Sen. David Jones was excused. Also attending were Sens. Liburd and Celestino A. White, who are not committee members.
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