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Panel OKs Unfunded Weekend Bus Service

There will be an unfunded mandate for public bus service on weekends if the V.I. Senate approves legislation passed onto it Tuesday by the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.

Some senators acknowledged the lack of funding as a concern for the legislation, [Bill 31-0133] sponsored by Sen. Marvin Blyden, but recalled that Public Works said it might be able to divert other funding for the purpose.

Lawmakers also cited the potential benefit to those relying on low-cost bus transportation as outweighing a lack of funding.

"I don’t believe it is a no-brainer," Sen. Novelle Francis said during debate on the bill during Tuesday’s committee hearing. "Running new routes from one end of the island to the other, without taking cost into consideration, is of concern to me," he said, adding that he was concerned that the public VITRAN bus service could be forced to cut other routes and lose money running empty buses if the expansion is not studied closely first. "I don’t believe this is an area we need to be legislating," he said.

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Francis ultimately voted in favor of the bill, which was sent on to the Senate floor without opposition.

Sen. Justin Harrigan recalled that Public Works Commissioner Gustav James told senators he could implement weekend routes sometime soon without a legislative mandate, and may be able to use some federal funds for the purpose.

"But what happens when you leave?" he said, suggesting that a legislative mandate would make sure the route additions remained once a new administration takes office.

"We have come to a point where we are forced through the legislative process to mandate a service," Senate President Neville James said. "I agree with Public Works that we really shouldn’t be legislating this. But let me restate one of our primary responsibilities," as laid out in the federal statute establishing the V.I. Legislature. "The one I focus on is the mandate to respond to the needs of our constituents. Clearly public transportation must be provided for the people of the Virgin Islands. … We are looking out for the have-nots on Saturday, Sunday and the weekend," James said.

Voting to send the measure on for a final vote were: James, Francis, Harrigan, Sens. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Kenneth Gittens. Sen. Janette Millin Young was absent.

In the past, when the Legislature has legislated unfunded mandates during times of budget cuts, those mandates have frequently not been carried out, with agency officials citing the lack of funding as the reason when they again appear before the Legislature. Mandates that the public schools teach all students swimming, and teach real estate appraisal, have not been carried out due to lack of funding, for example.

A hundred million dollars in roadwork on St. Croix’s Melvin Evans Highway and St. Thomas’ Veterans Drive, delayed when the Legislature declined to act last year, may begin toward the end of the year if a bill approved in committee Tuesday is enacted into law.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly would authorize the Public Works commissioner to borrow money through federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, or GARVEE, bonds, which effectively act as a sort of advance on annual federal road funding.

GARVEE grants are only for new construction and to complete rebuilding of federal roads and they cannot be used for repair, repaving and maintenance of federal roads. They can only be used for projects the federal government approves as part of the Territorial Transportation Improvement Plan.

Rivera-O’Reilly’s bill originally authorized $75 million in GARVEE borrowing and required all of it to be spent on St. Croix. Rivera-O’Reilly later supported amendments increasing the borrowing to $105 million. Tuesday, she offered another amendment, which the committee approved, increasing the borrowing to $205 million, at the request of Government House. It requires 55 percent of the funding be spent on St. Croix roads. The amendment also includes $7 million in potential bond funding for St. John roads.

O’Reilly said Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration asked for the increased bond amount because it anticipates getting more federal road funding, which will increase the amount of GARVEE funding available, and increasing the amount will give Public Works more flexibility to start a greater number of road projects.

"This does not mean the government can immediately go out and get $250 million tomorrow," O’Reilly said. "What it does mean is that the government can go out right now and get somewhat more than $105 million," and begin work on these projects, she said.

The bill was sent on without opposition.

The committee also sent on three of Mapp’s recent board and commission nominations: Pierna Jacobs Feldman to chair Public Employee Relations Board; Jerry Smith to the Board of Physical Therapy, the body that licenses physical therapists; and Jose A. Penn for another term on the Economic Development Authority’s board of directors.

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