The recent rains coupled with civilian interlopers caused the Department of Public Works to add a concrete barrier a few days ago to the flimsier orange plastic ones that had been set to alert motorists to the road collapse in the western lane on Mafolie Hill for the last year on St. Thomas.
By Tuesday afternoon, the contractor hired to repair the crumbling road had replaced it with new bright orange barriers filled with water.
Residents had become concerned and increasingly frustrated about what they viewed as a lack of action on repairing the crumbling road, spurring one or more of them to make the situation worse by knocking aside the light-weight plastic barriers in order to make the road appear passable by two lanes of traffic, according to Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty.
The images make it clear that was not safe, and became less and less so as the road continued to deteriorate.
Once road work begins, which should happen within the next three weeks, the road will be limited to one-way traffic coming down the hill toward town. Vehicles going up from town will be detoured through Agnes Fancy to the roundabout and right up Route 31 – Mannassah Road, which comes out above Mafolie Hotel.
Petty said a side benefit of the temporary detour is Public Works will pave the Agnes Fancy road.
The dramatic drop-offs on the steep, winding, heavily trafficked road that is the most direct route from Charlotte Amalie town to the island’s North Side have made the engineering a major feat. Between the severity of the incline and the overgrown bush, the gradual deterioration had gone undetected for nearly two years.
Tuesday, Petty said a resident brought the situation to his attention last fall.
“A citizen driving below the road must have seen the deepening crevasse and called us,” Petty said.
The erosion, he said, had begun during the back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that dumped tons of water down the steep hillsides.
Petty said the engineering and design was done “in house,” and the project was put out to bid last November. However, the lowest bid came in at $1.6 million.
“That sounded crazy to me, so I took a chance and put it out to bid again,” Petty said.
In February, the lowest bid came back at $900,000. The contract was awarded to Four Star Construction. The project has been approved for funding through the Federal Highway Emergency Relief funds. It was signed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. Monday.
The contractor, under a separate agreement, is also required to maintain safety in the area as preparations are being made for construction to begin – hence Tuesday’s new barricades.
Meanwhile, without any construction stoplights, the danger of a collision has been exacerbated in the area where the road has already disintegrated and continues to erode by being on a blind curve a few hundred feet below a hairpin turn.
When coupled with all manner of large trucks and safari buses on the narrow, sharply winding road and motorists in a dangerous and mysterious hurry, the area is a constant recipe for a vehicular disaster – even under normal circumstances.
In 2007, a Water and Power Authority bucket truck lost its brakes going down the hill causing it to rear-end a safari bus carrying 22 tourists. The accident, which ultimately involved four vehicles, sent 29 people to the hospital – one of whom was airlifted to Florida with a fractured skull.
Fortunately, the temporary traffic signals and detours signs will shortly be in place and work will begin. Petty said he expects it to take four months to complete. Meanwhile, motorists, who have seen the bright orange barricades for some time now, are asked to note the danger and be courteous by slowing down and thinking of the road as one lane until such time as it actually becomes so. Motorists coming down the hill would do well to slow down and note that visibility for those drivers coming up the hill is impaired by both the barriers and the curve in the road and act accordingly until the detour is in place.