Nothing good happens before it’s time and, according to Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter, Tuesday morning was exactly the right time for the official kickoff of a Waterfront expansion project which has been 30 years in the making.
Speaking at the project’s groundbreaking at the Veteran’s Drive intersection, Potter said the project – first on the drawing board in 1984 – is built around several broad goals.
“It’s now time to get going, it’s time to get started, it’s time to put people to work right here on this project as we move toward with improving the flow of traffic, improving the safety of our pedestrians and contributing to a better quality of life for all of us,” Potter said.
Making those goals a reality will come in two phases. The first started Tuesday and the second will pick up right after, thanks to the shifting of federal funds awarded to the territory for public restoration efforts.
The first phase starts at the Veteran’s Drive intersection, across from the Lucinda Millin Home for the Aged, and runs to Fort Christian, while the second will loop around the Legislature and continue down the Waterfront to the Edward Wilmoth Blyden ferry terminal.
Included in the first phase, which carries a $42 million price tag, is: the widening of the existing roadway from two to four lanes, the installation of a landscape median, an additional sidewalk along the north side and a promenade on the south, along with improved lighting, signals and drainage.
Meanwhile, the second phase costs $60 million and does two things: shifts heavy traffic around the Legislature to safeguard Fort Christian against damage caused by vibrations from the roadway, and creates areas for what project architect John Woods described as “engagements,” where residents can sit, bike, and enjoy the Waterfront, enhanced Vendor’s Plaza and historical areas such as Emancipation Garden.
While Gov. Kenneth Mapp said the first phase is covered by “borrowed” Federal Highway Administration funds, the second will be taken from the $1.6 billion given by the federal government for local recovery efforts. Approximately $700 million of the money is earmarked for mitigation and protection and can be used to ensure the two phases can run back to back, the governor explained.
More “good news,” the governor said: $243 million from Housing and Urban Development included in the overall $1.6 billion will allow for the Charlotte Amalie harbor, Crown Bay channel and the channel leading into St. Croix’s Gallows Bay to be dredged to accommodate the larger Quantum and Oasis class ships. Pending approval from the federal government, that work will take place before the end of the year, Mapp said.
A Word of Caution
Mapp’s “good news,” however, was tempered by a word of caution. It might have taken 34 years to get the timing right for the project, but the government can’t afford to spend another 34 years using up the federal funds awarded for it, he said.
Mapp spoke about current delays at the Schneider Regional Medical Center, whose leadership team the governor said has taken more than two months to sign a contract for the architect needed to install the hospital’s modular facilities. The deadline to spend federal matching funds awarded to the center for the work expires Wednesday and without an extension – which Mapp said the territory should be approved for – the government has to pay 10 percent of $60-$70 million.
“After 10 percent, when the next term expires, we have to pay 25 percent, then 50, and after that, the federal government will just tell us to pay for it on our own,” the governor said. “The territory doesn’t have experience in managing billions of dollars, so we have to put the plans in place, put the reporting in place, put the transparency in place that allows us to do so.”
Time is not on our side, he added.
From the Past to the Present
With so many in the audience Tuesday that have been a part of the project since its inception, much time was spent reflecting on its evolution. At the end of the day, Woods said, the Veteran’s Drive expansion is one of the first built with substantial input from the community, which was given through a series of charrettes that were organized years ago by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands as a way to develop a blueprint for development within Charlotte Amalie.
“For many years, it seemed that this project would never get off the ground,” said Woods, who also spoke on behalf of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce. “It was like we were at both sides of a World War II battlefield, where any advancements were erased by counter-attacks. Every time we moved forward, we would be pushed back.”
Once all the public and private groups began to work together, they discovered that everyone had more in common for their vision for Charlotte Amalie than differences, he said.
“In the ensuing eight years, the result is what you see today: an incredible public-private partnership that saw the community come together to design their town. These ideas represent the collective will of everyone who participated,” Woods said.