The Public Works Department may want to put a public road from the Salt Pond area through the V.I. National Park’s Reef Bay valley as part of its Transportation Master Plan, but a park official had something to say about that Wednesday.
“There’s a very slim possibility of that ever happening,” the park’s deputy superintendent, Jayne Schaeffer, said Wednesday after a meeting held at the Legislature to unveil the master plan.
For many years, various local government officials have pushed to open what now amounts to a national park trail along St. John’s south shore. It would be a massive and expensive endeavor.
“We’re going to encounter a lot of environmental issues,” Marie-Elsie Dowell said to the dozen people gathered at the Legislature building for the meeting called by Public Works.
She is a vice-president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Miami-based consulting firm hired by Public Works to work on the Transportation Master Plan.
The plan has been in works since 2009 and is the result of several public and committee meetings. The plan is expected to last until 2040.
“This is the final plan, but it’s a fluid plan,” Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said.
While the officials outlined plans to improve roads and fine tune the VITRAN bus service, several people who attended the meeting expressed concerns about the existing infrastructure.
The VITRAN bus service has recently improved with the arrival of new buses that can handle St. John’s hilly and winding roads, but it doesn’t run on weekends and holiday. Coral Bay Community Council president Sharon Coldren pointed out that many private sector workers do not have weekends and holidays off. Deputy Public Works Commissioner Karole Ovesen-McGregor said lack of funds prevent the department from running the buses on those days.
“Our hope is with increased ridership, revenues pick up. The obvious goal is to resume weekends and holiday,” Smalls said.
Allowing riders with suitcases on the buses is likely to increase ridership, and Smalls said after the meeting that he would look into that. Currently, suitcases are not allowed but baby carriages are.
Public Works planner Keith Richards said he’s evaluating the possibility of putting in park-and-ride lots in Coral Bay and in Susannaberg near Myrah Keating Community Health Center so people wouldn’t have to take their vehicles into Cruz Bay. Parking in Cruz Bay is often a challenge and the park-and-ride lot would help alleviate that issue.
Smalls also said that while the barge service between Cruz Bay and Red Hook, St. Thomas, is part of the transportation equation, because it’s not operated by Public Works there was no way to include it in the plan. The ferries are included because Public Works this year leased two boats to the island’s privately-owned ferry companies, Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures, to augment their own ferries.
Smalls said his goal was to have people be able to take public transportation from Coral Bay, St. John, to Bordeaux, St. Thomas, using the bus and ferries.
While the VITRAN buses do meet the arriving ferries in Cruz Bay, Richards said a goal was to have the buses meet ferries that arrive in Red Hook and head to shopping centers such as Tutu Park Mall.
Smalls also said that due to the Legislature, seniors ride the VITRAN bus for free. This impacts VITRAN’s bottom line.
“We’ve had instances where the bus was filled with non-paying passengers,” Smalls said, calling for a change in the legislation so seniors resume paying.
As it currently stands, the regular fare is $1. Previously, seniors paid 55 cents. Smalls said all fares need to increase.
At issues for several residents was the steepness of Jacob’s Ladder, a narrow and extremely steep road outside of Cruz Bay. It’s a busy road and the only way from Cruz Bay to the Westin Resort and Villas and the Great Cruz Bay and Chocolate Hole neighborhoods.
“In a light drizzle, it gets really slick,” St. John resident Melville Samuel said, recalling that a St. John resident died many years ago when his vehicle slid back downhill.
Smalls said there was no easy solution to that problem because there are houses on both sides of the road. To make a series of switchbacks up the road to alleviate the steepness would mean taking that land.
“There is no quick, easy fix,” Smalls said.
The Transportation Master Plan meetings began Tuesday on St. Croix. They will wrap up at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Lockhart Elementary School cafeteria on St. Thomas.