A long-awaited new ferry to run the route between St. Thomas and St. Croix is on hold indefinitely because the government does not have the money to buy the vessel, Public Works Commissioner Gustav James told senators Wednesday.
The ferry has not operated that route since a 2011 grounding damaged the vessel that had been running the route.
Sen. Novelle Francis asked James about the status of Public Works’ efforts to get a ferry for the route.
“We still have a funding issue,” James said. “We have $4 million that we can use. However, each vessel for that route is going to be at least $10 million.”
“So we do not have enough funds to actually purchase the vessels that will be able to service that route,” James told the Housing, Public Works, Waste Management and Planning Committee during an oversight hearing.
There may yet be a ferry. There is a private ferry project being funded by St. Croix businessman Warren Mosler, who has built a catamaran ferry named the QE IV. In December 2016, Mosler said one last sea test is necessary before launching a new ferry service between St. Croix and St. Thomas and then he plans to build a second vessel to handle passenger demand, if needed.
Since being launched in May, the QE IV has been approved by the V.I. Port Authority and has undergone a number of tests for the U.S. Coast Guard. The final trial will test the performance in 6-foot seas with 20-knot winds, according to Mosler.
How soon a vessel may start the route remains up in the air. In December, Mosler said once the Coast Guard has endorsed the ferry, service will begin from St. Croix’s Gallows Bay to Charlotte Amalie seven days a week.
But the V.I. Public Services Commission regulates and grants ferry route franchises and the PSC has not yet reported that Mosler has applied to run the route, so there is at least one more major step between the final Coast Guard approval and actual St. Croix-St. Thomas ferry service.
The meeting also heard testimony from James about beginning reconstruction “by mid-March” on Paul E. Joseph Stadium.
Francis recalled that Gov. Kenneth Mapp announced in January, before his state of the territory address, that he was giving the go-ahead to start construction at Paul E. Joseph.
Francis said that since Mapp’s announcement, “every day when I go to work I go by the Paul E. Joseph Stadium just to see if there are any shovels in the ground. And I have not seen that.”
“Is March a drop dead date for us to start or is there again some hindrance that would prohibit us from being able to engage some movement in this execution?” Francis asked.
James said, “Well let me explain somewhat what happened with Paul E. Joseph Stadium. Paul E. Joseph Stadium was a design build contract initially and the problem we had was that we did not have the design in order to accurately price the construction.”
“It’s been two years,” Francis interjected.
James continued, “The design is now completed. … To the point where we can accurately price it, I should say there are still some design details. The pricing is now being negotiated with the contractor. … And that is ongoing as we speak.”
Francis said he wants to see construction begin.
“We are in the third year of the Mapp-Potter administration and we are hoping to see some movement,” Francis said.
Funding was approved for the project in 2012.
In November 2014, former Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed a contract with St. Croix-based General Engineering Corp. for the stadium reconstruction.
The $20 million contract originally called for the demolition of the current structure and the design and construction of a new stadium, sports complex, Little League field and Carnival Village. That has been reduced for funding reasons.
Demolition on the stadium began in January 2015 but Mapp halted the project in February 2015, saying the plans were put together “in haste.” He said the administration would meet with the contractor to rewrite the contract or terminate the project if an agreement can’t be reached.
At one point, the administration instead engaged with another contractor, Coastal Systems, which had a contract for the project a decade ago – back in 2005, when Mapp was the V.I. Public Finance Authority’s director of finance and administration. Since then, Mapp has been renegotiating with GEC.
During budget hearings in summer of 2015, Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Pedro Cruz said the “design will be updated, improved and approved” before the end of 2015. In July of 2016, some senators, including Francis, again expressed frustration at the slow progress on the stadium.
James also informed the committee that on St. Thomas, Fort Christian, which has been closed for renovations for many years, is nearing completion and they are “working with the contractor to ensure that the facility is ready for the March 2017 Centennial event.”
The committee also heard from the Planning and Natural Resources Department and V.I. Waste Management Authority. The Department of Public Works is working with DPNR on the historic monument, DPNR Commissioner Dawn Henry said they “hope to have the fort completed by the end of March.”
Sen. Marvin Blyden, the committee chairman, asked, “Is that a realistic date?”
Henry replied, “The contractor may be having an issue with Customs with the bricks that are coming from Ecuador.”
The contractor and DPNR officials were also meeting that Wednesday to see if there is an issue and when the bricks should arrive, she said. “They are expected Feb. 21 so the courtyard can be completed in time.”
Sean Krigger, director of the State Historic Preservation Office at DPNR, briefed the committee on some of the archeological findings in the fort and the work being done.
Henry and VIWMA officials urged the Legislature to approve pending legislation to implement bottle deposits and mandate a comprehensive recycling program.
Roger Merritt, VIWMA executive director, spoke about plans for closing the territory’s two landfills and the shortage of remaining space in them.
Mapp proposed the deposit bill and recycling plan as a way to extend the life of the landfills. The Senate approved a plastic grocery bag ban in 2016 but has not approved the recycling and deposit components of Mapp’s proposal.
Present were Blyden, Sens. Sammuel Sanes, Jean Forde, Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, Brian Smith and Janette Millin Young. Noncommittee member Francis also attended. Sen. Neville James was absent.