Opposition Leader Marlon Penn said on Feb. 21 that funding available for the recently unveiled West End ferry terminal project likely won’t cover a quarter of the actual cost.
Mr. Penn was speaking during National Democratic Party Radio, which host Bevin George opened by claiming that substantive improvements to schools, roads and sewerage systems haven’t yet materialised despite millions of dollars budgeted for public projects in the past three years.
The Recovery and Development Agency shared plans with the public earlier this month for a 12,000-square-foot ferry terminal to replace the temporary facility at Sopers Hole, complete with a multi-storey car park and private vessel jetty. The German company INROS Lacknew S.E., which created the new design after securing a $1,048,909 tendered contract, anticipates construction could be completed as early as November 2023.
First, though, it will need to be funded. And Mr. Penn expressed scepticism on this point.
“The cost has to be way higher than the plans we had before — that was a $25 million estimate,” he said. “If you look at what is actually funded to develop the West End port, it’s I think about 10 to 11 million dollars that was actually funded through the RDA. … How are we going to get this project done?”
Mr. Penn added that previous plans were rejected for being too expensive. He didn’t specify which designs he meant, but various plans have been put forward for the facility over the past 15 years. The largest, eventually costed at $40 million, was proposed in 2010 under the then-Virgin Islands Party government, in which now-Premier Andrew Fahie, who as First District representative represents West End, served as minister of education and culture.
But after the NDP came to power in 2011, then-Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool said the project would be scaled back dramatically. In 2013, he proposed plans for a facility costing less than $5 million, but those plans never got off the ground either.
In 2014, the BVI Ports Authority issued a tender notice seeking a $3 million terminal in West End, but no updates followed before Hurricane Irma.
After the storm, tentative plans to work with a private donor to build a 27,000-squarefoot building fell through in 2019. Instead, ferries to and from St. Thomas operated through a temporary facility.
“Imagine what it would cost to build the designs we’ve seen just recently,” Mr. Penn said on Feb. 21. “After a cursory conversation with some persons in the industry, they say it’s going to be way closer in the range of almost $40 million to build that project.”
The RDA website states that the total project budget will be released once the planning stage is finalised.
Mr. Penn also said on Feb. 21 that it’s imperative for Virgin Islands leaders to set a clear list of development priorities to avoid unnecessary project delays and redundant work. He added that these priorities should reflect the wishes of the public and not change drastically from administration to administration.
Otherwise, he said, the territory loses out on promises of in-kind donations and other funding, as he claimed occurred with the terminal project.
The lack of funding for projects isn’t unique to the ferry terminal, Mr. Penn added.
He said that he also doubts that government has the “capacity” to complete larger projects like the reconstruction of Elmore Stoutt High School, especially since it hasn’t secured additional loan funding in the past three years.
Mr. Penn said he was “reliably informed” that government went back to the Social Security Board for additional money after receiving a $40 million grant last year for economic stimulus in the wake of Covid-19.
“The specifics will come out,” he said, predicting that the topic would arise at the next House of Assembly sitting.
He acknowledged the challenges of balancing a budget in a pandemic, but he said in hindsight that the territory could have been in a better position if a comprehensive development plan had been shared and carried out sooner.
Mr. George asked the opposition leader if he knows of any plans to address road issues, particularly in Paraquita Bay.
“Along the entire territory, persons are complaining and have concerns, and rightfully so, about the road infrastructure of the territory,” Mr. Penn said.
The previous administration developed a recovery plan in the early days of hurricane recovery for damaged roads and other infrastructure with assistance from a Caribbean Development Bank loan, Mr. Penn said, claiming that the only comprehensive roadwork completed in recent years originated from those early negotiations.
“What we’ve seen from this administration is a constant ‘patch and go’ approach,” he said.
Mr. Penn added that outstanding projects like fixing craters on the streets between Josiahs Bay and the East End Police Station need to be prioritised, and receive appropriate funding. The 2021 budget included $300,000 for road repairs, he noted, and the bulk of that came from the CDB loan programme.
Another $300,000 was included in the 2022 budget, but Mr. Penn said it’s not sufficient to address major issues.
He added that the funding shortage has been exacerbated by cuts to district-specific funding and the practice of covering capital projects through recurrent expenditures.
“If there are any designs or any other plans for the entire main road infrastructure through – out this territory to redevelop those roads, they need to present it to the people,” Mr. Penn said. “I haven’t seen any.”
Members of government, however, told a different story on Virgin Islands Party Radio on the evening of Feb. 22.
Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said that the administration has made progress on various projects, like last year’s work on planning for a new Jost Van Dyke Primary School. Dr. Wheatley said $400,000 has been allocated in this year’s budget for the school, and the tender will be going out in a week.
Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone noted during the programme that while the previous administration secured $15 million for housing development after Hurricane Irma, $9 million was through loans that residents struggled to access.
“We will do whatever is possible to bring in additional monies,” he said.
Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer said “extensive” work is being done under his ministry at the moment, particularly with administration buildings on the sister islands.
Mr. Rymer added that work is progressing on roads by the Frenchmans Cay bridge and at Carrot Bay, which have been deteriorating since 2017.
“I know the residents have complained quite a lot about it, but it is now happening, and we hope to see the works start quite soon,” Mr. Rymer said.
He added that developing a national plan for road infrastructure and securing necessary construction equipment were some of the first things the administration pursued after taking office.
Additionally, he said, an updated comprehensive road development plan is pending.