|Runway, pier plans questioned|
|Thursday, 16 August 2012 09:26|
Much of the critical comment in the issue concerns the proposed cruise ship pier. The plan is quite frankly a transplanted version of Coney Island, New York. As such, it seems highly unsuited to the local cultural scene.
The proponents seem to be more than willing to sell their heritage for less than a mess of pottage. The question that they fail to ask, let alone answer, is why people should come to the VI if they can, for much less money, go to the real Coney Island without leaving the continental United States? And the peripheral shopping and restaurants in New York City are a whole lot more attractive as well, to say nothing of the accommodation. So why is the proposed “Tortola Pier Park” touted as a tourist attraction? And why would it entice a cruise ship passenger to come back to Tortola as an overnight visitor?
But Premier Dr. Orlando Smith is possibly to be congratulated since he seems to have at least put the brakes on the development. Possibly it would have been more appropriate to control Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool before he touted the project to the skies and told the population just how great it was? But that never seems to be the way that the National Democratic Party government works.
‘A bunch of individuals’
Whatever else is true, the government seems to behave as a bunch of individuals each with his or her own agenda — and very little in the way of a unified plan for the territory. As Shaina Smith pointed out in a commentary in the Aug. 2 edition of the Beacon, there does not seem to be a coordinated plan for tourism.
Moreover, there are the conflicting statements that continually come before the public. Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering said that the government would never do anything that would harm Trellis Bay. Then he advanced a proposal for the runway extension that virtually ensures that Trellis Bay will survive neither as a yacht harbour nor as a tourist attraction. This proposal is going ahead regardless, according to Dr. Pickering.
To his credit, Dr. Pickering discarded the runway extension option that would certainly destroy a salt pond that is quite possibly a bird sanctuary. But at the same time, the option picked (known as Option Six) will impose the noise pollution caused by large jets — if they ever come, which the Beacon’s recent special report rightfully gives cause to doubt. Anyone who believes that a bird population will willingly select a noisy environment such as the one that will doubtless be created is either simple or really optimistic.
Dr. Pickering now controls two publicly funded documents: the Louis Berger airport master plan and the Kraus-Manning impact assessment. He is currently suppressing both. In doing so, he has managed to obtain the worst of both worlds. Both have been leaked to the press, and the press is now using them to inform the public. In failing to suppress them completely, Dr. Pickering has lost the capability to even possibly control the information flow.
The public is therefore in the position of being able to take the worst aspects of both reports without the government really being able to present a believable story of its own. Far, far better to simply release the reports (which were both publicly funded) and act responsibly in reviewing them and choosing a logical course of action. The excuse that is used is that the Kraus-Manning assessment must be reviewed. This is frankly simply an excuse. At least some members of the public can indeed read and judge for themselves.
I had great hopes for the impact assessment process in this case. It was scheduled to include a social impact section. But the quotations in the Beacon special report suggest that the consultant who wrote that section implied that the public has no choice but to take the lemons that the government is going to give them and try to make lemonade. This is a most disappointing result of what could have been a significant study.
When the original airport was expanded in the early years of the 21st Century, the designers advised that the expansion was quite possibly the greatest that was practical. The expansion was, of course, designed to allow American Airlines to shift to the ATR 72 aircraft. It also permitted AA to reduce the daily number of flights by the ratio 42/72, or roughly 42 percent — which the airline did, recognising that because of the larger aircraft the change would not affect the total passenger volume.
The hub remained San Juan for some years. Passenger volume probably expanded up to 2008 when the major world economic upheaval reduced the general amount of air travel even beyond the post-9/11 levels. In the intervening time, increased airline security and the efforts of the airlines to reduce costs and increase profitability by reducing service levels in flight has made air travel a necessity rather than a pleasure as it once was. Given the tight economic situation of the typical airline, that situation is not going to change.
But the current pressure to extend the runway totally ignores the fact that simply offering an expanded level of service does not necessarily mean that more people will use it. The point has been made time and time again that, so long as the fare structure between the mainland US and St. Thomas (even including the ferry ride) is less than the fare to Beef Island, the public will fly to St. Thomas. The major question of whether a US hub and direct flights will change this fact remains to be answered.
The Berger report considered five options for extending the runway. Of these, it recommended a rotation to the northwest by about 20 degrees. This option ensures that all landings and takeoffs will be subject to increased crosswinds. As a consequence, the runway must be wider as well as longer. Doubling the runway width in the long run sharply increases the cost. The estimated cost of this option is $70 million.
The government, to its credit, looked for a less expensive option, and that turned out to be the reuse of the existing orientation with a lengthening to both the east and west. This reduced the estimated cost for the extension to $38 million but apparently did not include any widening of the runway then. But extending the runway to the west severely complicates the approach pattern. These complications are possibly acceptable in good weather but will certainly be less so in marginal or poor weather. It is really pointless to expect the pilot of a 757 to risk his neck (as well as 300 passengers for whom he is responsible) because of a known defect in the runway design.
Remember that the new design is going to require a series of approvals from both the United Kingdom and US authorities. Do not believe that the airline insurance companies are not going to have their say as well. If any one of these parties turns thumbs down, the project is, in all probability, dead.
The predicted environmental effects in Trellis Bay are far from insignificant. As Aragorn Dick-Read and others have suggested, the end result for Trellis Bay is really likely to be little short of economic devastation. Any time that a proponent immediately starts to talk of mitigative measures, you can be assured that the proponent is highly uncertain of the design. The measures being considered by the design team are, to a great degree, extreme. A drain/canal to route the flow along the length of the new runway? The whole extension on stilts? Additional costs to the tune of another $40 million?
Furthermore, the runway is only the beginning. The terminal must be expanded. Customs and immigration facilities must be expanded. Safety facilities and emergency facilities must be improved. Fuel storage must be provided to allow refueling operations. All of this costs, and when a government is involved the expansion in cost tends to be exponential.
When talking about safety and bad weather, it might be well to remember what happened in Toronto, Ontario a couple of years ago. An Air France direct flight from Paris to Toronto, which was approaching Toronto International in a thunderstorm, decided to land instead of going around again or diverting. (Perhaps it was short on fuel?) In any event, the pilot landed long and tried to stop. The water on the runway caused his landing gear to lose its grip (hydroplaning?). The aircraft wound up in a ravine off the end of the runway. Fortunately, there was no fire. Fortunately, the crew performed superbly. Fortunately, drivers from a nearby highway helped to get the passengers off. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.
But the same series of conditions could happen here, where the overshoot area is in Trellis Bay. And the run from Beef Island to Peebles Hospital (if the new facility ever gets completed) is not one to look forward to if you are injured. What preparations have we made at the hospital for handling, say, 100 serious casualties? It will be too late to start thinking about it as flight XXX approaches the new runway in bad weather.
Consider the following scenario: A 757 is approaching from the west. The weather is foul at Beef Island — and in St. Croix and St. Thomas. The plane is short of fuel and probably cannot safely reach San Juan. As the pilot lines up with the runway, in poor visibility, he or she prepares to make the required sharp turn to starboard — but misjudges it just a little and in correcting, lands long on a (very) wet runway. The Toronto result follows. I personally would prefer not to be on that flight.
Why are we doing this at all? As the Beacon’s Aug. 2 editorial points out, the recently signed protocol between the VI and the UK requires a thorough financial analysis of any major project. At anything from $80 million to $100 million (want to bet?), this project certainly qualifies. To the best of my knowledge, no one has done anything concrete towards developing a cost-benefit analysis. Everything we have to date is a sales pitch based on optimistic possibilities, not facts.