Senators were unanimous Monday in voicing praise for Carlton Dowe, the executive director of the Virgin Islands Port Authority, while at the same time raising concern about a variety of issues.
During a meeting of the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture, the members spoke approvingly of the progress VIPA has been making on infrastructure projects and expressed admiration for Dowe’s ability to keep paying the authority’s 365 employees as revenue-generating abilities took a “hard hit” from the COVID-19 shutdown.
“You are doing a hell of a job,” Sen. Javan James Sr. told Dowe. But like other senators at the hearing, James had some concerns, starting with the condition of the road leading into the St. Croix airport. He said it was in bad shape, gave visitors a bad first experience and needed work.
Sen. Milton Potter said Dowe deserved kudus for the progress on infrastructure projects. But he questioned Dowe on whether any progress on a possible merger of the Port Authority and the West Indian Company Ltd. had been made.
Dowe said nothing had progressed along the merger line. It was still in the discussion stage. He added that he was optimistic that something might be done before the end of the year.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who chaired the meeting, had several concerns. He mentioned long lines of visitors when planes arrived at peak hours. Dowe said airlines were offered incentives to land at off-peak hours but so far, they had not worked. He also said the Port Authority had no control of how early Customs opened in the morning.
Gittens also saw a problem in how boats in the St. Thomas harbor appeared to be in the landing area for the seaplane. He said, “Boats are everywhere.” He was told it was the seaplane pilots’ responsibility to land where the boats were not, and boats in the regular landing area were not violating any laws.
Gittens was also concerned that Port Authority police officers were often not in uniform at the airports and could not be identified. He was told that situation had been rectified.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory suggested since so many private jets land at the territory’s airports, something is done to let those visitors know about the territory’s economic incentive programs. Dowe said some of the wealthiest people in the world visit the islands and Frett-Gregory’s suggestion was thought-provoking.
The last year has been difficult for the authority, Dowe said, because tourism has been curtailed.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant revenue shortfalls due to reduced travel and a significant decrease in marine traffic to the territory,” he said. He added the authority’s board of governors approved a $150.4 million budget for fiscal year 2021, a 2 percent decrease from the previous year.
“The Port Authority’s engineering department is currently managing 21 projects in St. Thomas/St. John District and 15 on St. Croix,” he said.
Ongoing hurricane restoration projects include the rebuilding of the authority’s purchasing and warehouse facility, and the Lindbergh Bay Park on St. Thomas. Both projects are expected to be completed late this summer. On St. Croix, a new office and cargo warehouse is under construction to replace the building at the Wilfred “Bomba” Allick Port and Transshipment Center that was damaged in the storms.
The St. Thomas airport terminal is approximately 32 years old, according to Dowe, and was constructed to accommodate 300,000 passengers. Before the pandemic, he said, the airport was processing more than 700,000 travelers annually and this often led to congestion. The authority has significantly repaired the storm damage the terminal has suffered and has also renovated all first-floor restrooms in the terminal.
Dowe said this was done with an eye on plans to expand and modernize the facility. Those plans include the addition of jet bridges, a new parking garage and a water taxi pier. The project is to be completed in four stages over six years. The first stage is the construction of a four-level parking garage and transportation center.
The authority manages the territory’s two airports and 14 public seaports. It recently reopened the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s terminal on St. John, which was destroyed in the storms of 2017. The new 3,000-square-foot terminal is made of concrete and should better withstand storm winds.