Members of the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications expressed shock Monday to hear that large corporations have only been required to pay $25 for an excavation permit to dig up the territory’s roads to repair or install utility lines.
“You mean to tell me that all this inconvenience that our residents have gone through, businesses have been affected, and the permit fee is $25? It’s only $25 to dig up all our roads in the territory – St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John?” Sen. Samuel Carrion asked incredulously. “Something is clearly wrong here. Something is clearly wrong with how we do business in this government.”
“Call Before You Dig’” laws require all public or private stakeholders be contacted if another provider plans to dig beneath the roadway to install or work on utility lines. The U.S. Virgin Islands has experienced telecommunication service interruptions, traffic impediments, and diminished roadways when roads are cut to install or repair utility lines.
Public Works Highway Program Manager Jomo McClean said a $25 fee is charged to these providers, and added that the corporations are currently not assessed any type of usage fee or any other additional fees.
Department of Public Work Commissioner nominee Derek Gabriel said the role of the department is to issue the excavation permit, but inspection of the projects to ensure compliance is not necessarily the department’s responsibility – or anyone else’s.
“These are not our projects, so it does take up a lot to have our project managers inspect them,” Gabriel said. “It’s not a requirement, but moving forward, we are looking at having a third-party monitor that reports specifically to the Department of Public Works.”
Should the department’s project managers recognize that a provider is not following the stipulations Gabriel said the department can issue a stop-work order.
“We do issue stop-work orders, that is our biggest, most immediate measure we have- issuing a stop-work order territory-wide or district-wide. Bringing in the contractor and having a discussion … in particularly about the execution,” Gabriel said.
But the department has no authority to fine the company. That responsibility falls to the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, and Gabriel said the department has not communicated in the past about the need for fines to be administered.
“We haven’t actually done what you are talking about,” Gabriel told the committee, “but I have reached out to my fellow cabinet member Mr. Richard Evangelista to make sure we are coordinating those efforts.”
Tom Bolt, an attorney representing Liberty Mobile during the hearing, said while it may not be being utilized, the law does provide that if a provider violates the provisions of “Call Before You Dig,” a civil penalty can be charged in an amount not to exceed $50,000.
“One of the things to note, pursuant to this ‘Call Before You Dig’ … they will be assessed a fee based on the extent of their work. So, there will be an extensive fee that will be assessed against these various companies – it won’t be any $25,” Bolt said.
But private companies have occasionally caused road damage and accidentally cut utility cables in the territory for a long time.
“Clearly what we are seeing is that most of these stipulations are not being followed and constantly we are seeing and hearing complaints on the conditions of these roads during these projects,” Carrion said. “This latest dig was not handled as well as it could have been. There must be more, and better, information made available to our motorists and residents. I also believe we need to do better in training those that are directing traffic, we need to improve in these areas.”
While there was no vote taken, senators agreed that there would need to be amendments to the current legislation to strengthen the “Call Before You Dig” laws.
Sens. Carrion, Marvin Blyden, Genevieve Whitaker, Franklin Johnson, Steven Payne Sr., and Kurt Vialet were present for the hearing. Janelle Sarauw was absent. Additional non-committee members were also present.