For more than a decade, a disturbing lack of transparency has surrounded multiple governments’ unsuccessful efforts to expand the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport.
The new government must turn over a new leaf.
However, its failure to invite the public to a recent meeting on the project was not a good start. Instead, a handful of “stakeholders” were invited after a selection process that the government was not willing to explain to this newspaper.
This approach was the wrong way to resurrect a major project that is of keen public interest.
The proposed expansion — which would be the largest capital project in the territory’s history — has proved highly controversial in the past.
The current and former governments have argued that it is urgently needed to improve air access for residents and visitors alike. They say it will bring a tourism boom and boost efforts to diversify financial services at a time when both industries face daunting challenges.
But detractors have pointed to the high cost and environmental concerns associated with the project, arguing that it would bring mass tourism that is anathema to the territory’s current reputation as an uncrowded, upscale destination.
Government, they have said, should concentrate instead on lower-cost solutions like improving the ferry service between here and St. Thomas.
The way forward is clear, as we have argued on this page for many years. Before moving forward, the government must commission independent experts to carry out a business case that transparently and thoroughly examines the costs and benefits of the proposal.
Then it must release that business case to the public and open the floor for discussion.
This common-sense approach doesn’t seem like a tall order. In fact, creating and publishing such a business case for major capital projects is required under the 2012 Protocols for Effective Financial Management. But to date, it hasn’t been done properly.
Then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith’s National Democratic Party-led government got the ball rolling 11 years ago. The year after returning to power in 2011, Dr. Smith’s administration held public meetings on the project, proclaiming that a $38 million airport expansion was a “done deal” but providing precious few details.
Ever since, this troubling lack of information has been the norm.
About seven years passed before another public meeting on the expansion, but in the meantime the projected cost ballooned dramatically over the course of two tender processes. A first round of bids in 2013 came in at around $400 million, and a second round for a scaled-down project came in between $153 million and $200 million in 2016.
But even the lower-cost iteration stalled for reasons that were never clearly explained.
Meanwhile, millions of dollars were spent on preparatory works and studies while the public was kept largely in the dark — sometimes with the support of then-Governor John Duncan and in flagrant violation of transparency requirements in the Protocols for Effective Financial Management.
After years of prodding from this newspaper and others, Dr. Smith’s government eventually released a partial business case and another study in 2016.
But these documents had many limitations, and leaders never provided the public with a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that adequately assessed whether the pros of the airport expansion would outweigh the potential cons.
Perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the NDP government’s failures on this front, then-Virgin Islands Party leader Andrew Fahie claimed during the 2019 election campaign that he opposed the airport expansion at the time. That position may have helped win votes, but it didn’t last long. Shortly after his VIP won the election and Mr. Fahie became premier, he changed his tune.
More bumbling followed. Instead of building on the work carried out by his predecessors, Mr. Fahie’s administration commissioned a new report from a new consultant — who, incidentally, had been fired from his previous post as general manager of the main Atlanta airport under a cloud of controversy.
To date, the new report has not been released to the public despite repeated requests from this newspaper.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley must end these tired games.
Instead of continuing with business as usual, his administration must move forward with full transparency by publishing all previous studies and other taxpayer-funded documents about the proposed expansion.
If these documents include an independent business case with a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, great. If not, one should be tendered and commissioned straightaway — and then provided to the public in full.
This business case should be accompanied by the tourism plan that successive governments have been promising for more than a decade.
Then, after community members have the needed facts in hand, they should get a chance to weigh in on the airport project.
Though this month’s closed-door meeting was a clumsy start, the government did tell the Beacon that public meetings will follow. This is good to hear, and we hope they come soon.
Full transparency and community dialogue are essential when deciding the way forward for the proposed expansion.
We would hate to see yet another government learn this increasingly obvious lesson the hard way.