If leaders in the new government proceed with their predecessors’ plan to expand the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, they must turn over a new leaf by being fully transparent with the project.
Unfortunately, they appear to be starting off on the wrong foot.
During last year’s election campaigns, now-Premier Andrew Fahie vigorously opposed the incumbents’ plans to proceed as quickly as possible with the expansion. The project, he argued, was not a good use of taxpayers’ money at the time.
He must avoid his predecessors’ mistakes at all costs.
The previous administration often failed to provide even a semblance of transparency as it forged ahead with what would be the largest capital project in the territory’s history.
The year after coming to power, the then-National Democratic Party-led administration held public meetings in 2012, proclaiming that a $38 million airport expansion was a “done deal” but providing precious few details.
This lack of information became a pattern.
About seven years would pass until another public meeting was held on the subject, but 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 and $200 million in 2016.
Meanwhile, millions were spent on preparatory works and studies while the public was kept largely in the dark — sometimes in flagrant violation of transparency requirements outlined in the 2012 Protocols for Effective Financial Management.
Not surprisingly, the project proved controversial. Detractors pointed to the high cost and environmental concerns, arguing that the expansion would bring mass tourism that the territory is ill equipped to handle. Government, they said, should concentrate instead on reforming the ferry service between here and St. Thomas.
But leaders in the previous government argued often that the expansion was badly needed because it would facilitate access to the territory for residents and visitors alike, bringing a tourism boom and boosting efforts to diversify financial services at a time when both industries are facing many challenges.
To support their case, leaders often cited studies that they repeatedly refused to provide to the public.
After years of prodding from this newspaper and others, the 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.
This is where the new government should step up to the plate. Still needed is a full business case that objectively probes the project, including the likely number of flights that a new airport might actually bring. Sister to this should be the tourism strategy that was promised by the former government but apparently was never completed.
Judging by Mr. Fahie’s recent announcement, however, the new government does not seem to be off to a good start.
In fact, it seems to have returned to the drawing board last year by quietly hiring a consultant from Atlanta who was fired from his recent job running that city’s airport in the midst of a spat with the mayor.
The consultant has since provided an apparently extensive taxpayer-funded report that includes recommendations for the way forward for the airport expansion. But the government has not provided the report to the public.
We fervently hope that this lack of transparency is not a sign that the territory’s current leaders plan to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps.
Before proceeding any further, they should bring the project back to the public, explain their reasoning and plans, provide the consultant’s full report, and give everyone a chance to weigh in properly. They should also review all previous progress and decide how best to use the studies already written; the works already carried out; and the bidding processes already completed. And they should keep the public informed every step of the way.
Tackling the largest capital project in the territory’s history is obviously a major undertaking, and it must be carried out with the highest level of transparency.