Sept. 26, 2006 – Preliminary work on a controversial plan to alter the Charlotte Amalie waterfront by filling in part of the harbor in order to construct a four-lane highway around the Legislature building is currently under way.
Known as Plan 8, the project was on and off the drawing board during the '90s, finally put aside when the Turnbull administration took office in 2000. However, the plans remained intact.
Wystan Benjamin, Department of Public Works design program manager for federal highway programs, said Tuesday that the project has been in motion since May, under the instigation of Public Works Commissioner George Phillips.
The news took many residents by surprise, including Austin Monsanto, Coastal Zone Management Committee chairman. "I didn't know anything about it until people started calling me last Friday about the barge that was operating by the Legislature."
Monsanto said he and a CZM inspector looked into the matter but could not find anyone in possession of a permit, even a clear-water certificate. "I saw the work progressing," Monsanto said, "but I didn't see a permit."
As CZM committee chair, Monsanto felt he should have been informed of the work. He said he spoke Monday with CZM Director Victor Somme III and William Rohring, CZM assistant director for St. Thomas-St. John. Rohring said Tuesday that a soil-boring permit had been issued to DPW in late July.
None of this information had been made public, as far as the Source could determine — until the barge attracted attention this week.
Ted Bast, St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce president, said he didn't know anything about the plan being reactivated until it was mentioned at a chamber board meeting Tuesday morning. He said he would withhold comment until he had a chance to "refresh himself on the issue."
Joe Aubain, chamber executive director, was equally taken by surprise. "I can't imagine I would change my mind from the position I took years ago, opposing it," he said. "What I don't understand is why the secrecy."
The League of Women Voters and the chamber were strongly opposed to the plan years ago. Erva Denham, League of Women Voters president, said Tuesday that she would have to confer with Helen Gjessing, the league's planning and environmental quality chair, who is off island. Denham, too, said she had had no notice of the plan having been reactivated.
Once contacted, government officials were forthcoming with information.
Plan 8 is a complicated issue. Its proponents argue that it will ease traffic flow in the congested downtown area.
The plan would connect with plans under way for the widening of Long Bay Road into a four-lane artery.
Opponents of the plan contend that widening the road is not the answer and that bigger highways will not solve the problem. Traffic-flow changes have been suggested as an alternative solution (See "Chamber, Others, Seek Alternative to Plan 8").
Myron Jackson, director of the State Historic Preservation Commission, said Monday, "The commissioner [PWD Commissioner Phillips] has made a decision; it's moving forward, not being revisited," he said. "Gov. Turnbull supports the plan. There has been no action since the Schneider administration. In fact, it was going forward until the outcries of the Chamber and the League of Women Voters."
Jackson sees the plan as a positive move to protect certain cultural resources. He said, "Traffic passing through the area by the Fort Christian Museum is one of the conditions for building on the south side of the Legislature because of the constant vibration on that corridor. The Legislature and the fort were one unit."
Jackson said he questioned the plan when he first became acquainted with it. "I didn't like the idea that the central point of the south battery was going to be affected by the highway," he said.
"However," he said, "looking at the possibilities in terms of the impact to the fort and likewise connecting those two units, the capitol and the fort without interpretation and the restoration of Kings Wharf with a public park to include Emancipation Garden and moving the fire station, you have to weigh all these factors.
"Those are all the things that would have to be revisited in the process," Jackson said. "I'm sure there will be public meetings. "Another consideration," Jackson said, "is the work that the V. I. Port Authority is planning for waterfront enhancement, which will have to come before the commission."
Benjamin, reached Tuesday afternoon, said, "We entered into a contract this year with our design consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff. They contracted Jaca and Sierra, a material testing laboratory and geotechnical consulting firm based on the island of Puerto Rico, who are collecting data, the core samples, now. Bio Impact company is doing the water monitoring. With the change of administration coming up, the commissioner needed to push forward to implement the contract."
Asked why the public wasn't alerted earlier to the plan, Benjamin said, "I didn't know that we didn't [inform the public]." He said, "The commissioner talks about it all the time on the radio his plans for the corridor, Long Bay, the traffic being done in phases. It's something he always talks about." Plan 8 is what is referred to as "the corridor." The Source was unable to reach Commissioner Phillips Tuesday for comment.
"We have completed all of the preliminary environmental work preparatory to finished planning studies," Benjamin said.
As far as once again trying to sell the plan to the public, Benjamin said, "We couldn't possibly move forward without public approval. The public, basically, selected Plan 8 out of 30 or 40 different schemes presented. It was the process of elimination that selected Plan 8 back in the early '90s.
"There was some objection from the public in small groups, the League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce. A lot of different groups, basically, voiced their concerns," Benjamin said. "They were given the opportunity in writing or verbally to express their concerns. All of that was compiled as part of the process."
About informing the CZM committee about the work being done, Benjamin said, "Somebody missed responding to the committee. I think they want to issue a sort of letter; I'm not sure."
Benjamin said, "It's a long process. We need to get all the required CZM permits, probably the next stage down the road. Parsons has an 18-month contract, so we should be finished with the whole application process by the end of 2007. It will hook up with the Long Bay project."
Benjamin also noted that within approximately 10 days a notice for bids will be online at the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division website and in various media. Also scheduled is "a pre-bid conference open to all parties, including media, and any contractors."
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