Heavy rains in November and early December battered the territory’s roads, causing new potholes to form and existing, often recurrent, ones to get even bigger.
Government officials are aware of the issues. During a news conference on Dec. 12, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp announced his office would fast track the bidding and awarding of road repair contracts to address the increasingly dire road conditions.
Mapp said an assistant attorney general from the Department of Justice will be assigned to the Departments of Public Works and Property and Procurement to oversee the process to ensure that the contracts are awarded fairly.
Cherie Munchez, director of communications for the Office of the Governor, said many roads need more than just potholes to be filled.
“Some areas of the roadways will require engineering in order to extend the life of the improvements. This is especially true for the areas of the roadway that are older,” Munchez said.
Munchez explained that the Department of Public Works is responsible for pothole repairs and that its operations teams, along with the community, reports new potholes.
Public Works has seven employees addressing potholes on St. Thomas and seven on St. Croix. Only two employees fill potholes on a part-time basis on on St. John.
“The variables that affect the time required to complete repairs include current weather conditions, availability of material and the priority assigned to a given pothole,” Munchez explained.
Many of the territory’s residents have expressed dismay over how long it’s taken to fill the deepest and most dangerous potholes. Most of the worst ones have been filled in the last couple weeks but not without first causing a number of flats and damaged rims.
A local business owner who runs a car rental and fleet management company said flat tires are a daily occurrence, claiming his company is the single largest consumer of tires in the territory. Tourists who rent cars don’t always know to go slowly on certain parts of the islands known to have more potholes, so they more commonly get flats.
If the renters don’t get adequate insurance coverage, they often end up upset when they’re charged for the replacement tire and damaged rim. A reputation for bad roads can and does earn the territory a bad name in the tourism industry.
It’s even more dangerous when rain fills the holes, because their depth and size is obscured. Hitting a pothole at high speeds can cause the driver to loose control of the vehicle and could lead to them hitting another car or driving off the road.
One St. Thomas pothole on St. Peter Mountain Road was so deep that someone spray painted the road to warn drivers of its location. Other concerned citizens have erected warning signs near other dangerous holes.
Mechanic shops that do front-end work have been busy too. For the past couple weeks, Elder Automotive on St. Thomas has been filling all of its appointments for alignments early in the morning, according to the shop’s co-owner Donna Jozwiak.
“The roads are just so bad now that we’ve been extra busy and booked solid for appointments for front-end issues. Usually people are spending their extra money on Christmas gifts this time of year and we aren’t as busy, but that’s not the case this year,” Jozwiak explained.
Even in areas without cavernous potholes, bumpy roads can put major strain on cars. On St. Thomas, the stretch of road that goes through Bovoni is in particular need of repaving, as it the road that leaves the airport, with many of the bumps being just as much of a reminder to slow down as the actual speed humps.
What’s taking so long to fix the roads?
Munchez said, “The ongoing inclement weather has created additional damage to the roads in the territory. Making the repairs to the potholes requires a dry period for the repairs to be effective.”
When asked about how road conditions compare between the three islands, Munchez said the situation is worst on St. Croix, since “the extensive damage to the road system has been impacted by many years of deferred maintenance.”
Munchez said that the previous administrations have deferred road maintenance. She added that “Gov. Mapp has prioritized developing and improving the infrastructure of the Virgin Islands, with a focus on our roadway.”
A resident on St. Croix said that the scariest thing about potholes on the island isn’t the number of them, it’s the depth.
Potholes that are only a few inches deep aren’t that menacing, but a hole more than six inches deep can do severe damage, causing oil pans to break, tires to blow and rims to bend.
While most of the territory’s speed limits are 35 mph or less, potholes are especially dangerous on St. Croix’s four-lane highway, the Melvin E. Evans Highway, where cars often travel 55 mph and faster. The harder a pothole is hit, the more damage it can do.
Traveling from Frederiksted up to the Domino Club on Mahogany Road in the rainforest is slow going these days, since many parts of the road are nearly washed out. Obstructive deposits of dirt litter the road. But the good news is that a bumpy stretch of Midland Road near Grove Place was repaved this year.
As of just before Christmas, two especially worrisome potholes to watch for on St. Croix were a deep one just west of Sunny Isles on Centerline Road and another on South Shore Road near the Salt River Marina.
In mid December, Public Works Commissioner Gustav James attended a Federal Highway Administration sponsored program that explored new, innovative approaches to roadwork, including modern materials, methods of construction and maintenance of infrastructure.
Munchez said Public Works uses asphalt to fill potholes, but if there’s more significant damage aggregate might also be used. Because many of the territory’s potholes reform in the same place, stronger, longer lasting fill materials seem necessary.
According to Munchez, funding has been identified for some of the repairs, but because of the impact from the recent heavy rains, additional funding will be needed. The territory is seeking more funding from Federal Highway Administration grants.
“All roadways on the three islands are being evaluated. Once the rains have passed, DPW will have a clearer picture of what roads have suffered the most damage. The list of priorities continues to be updated as the weather continues to erode some areas,” Munchez said.
In the meantime, drivers will need to continue dodging the ever-expanding potholes to avoid putting big dents in their wallets.
The public can report new potholes directly to Public Works on St. Croix at 340-773-1290, and on St. Thomas and St. John at 340-775-4844.