It was with great interest that I attended the St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce's presentation – THE CHARLOTTE AMALIE WATERFRONT – WHAT IS AND WHAT COULD BE, on the redevelopment of the Downtown Charlotte Amalie Waterfront. The ideas presented regarding the redevelopment of the Waterfront were fantastic. It can be the economic spark for the rebirth of Charlotte Amalie.
As a consultant who has worked this project with Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., for the past five years, I know the challenges that must be met trying to develop a traffic system that will be consistent with the existing historical uses of the downtown. Our team's primary goal, as directed by the Federal Highway Administration, was to develop a roadway solution for the congestion downtown. The design of urban improvements, while numerous, were limited to mitigation measures.
The ideas developed by the Chamber of Commerce expand the goals of the project and will certainly enhance and mitigate any traffic solution, which will be developed for this project. Unfortunately, the Chamber's ideas do not begin to address the traffic congestion downtown.
The problem is so easy to identify, yet extremely difficult to solve. The area between Fort Christian and the Virgin Islands Legislature Building is simply too narrow to widen the existing roadway. If Veterans Drive were compared to an hourglass, the area between Fort Christian and the Legislature Building can be considered the waist of the hourglass. As long as traffic remains constricted in that area, there will always be a bottleneck.
Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc. was required to perform data-gathering in the area of traffic surveys prior to starting the design process for the Veterans Drive Traffic Improvements. That information included performing traffic studies of the utilization by vehicles of Veterans Drive, as well as many other traffic arteries in Downtown Charlotte Amalie. The design team also received important traffic data on traffic arteries in the Estate Thomas area and Raphune Hill from the Department of Public Works.
Another cornerstone of the data gathering prior to studying alternatives was the Origin and Destination survey. Over 25,000 copies of this survey were mailed out with WAPA's water bills. A strong response was received from over 1,500 people.
One of the purposes of providing these studies was to determine the level of service in the existing transportation system. This would determine whether an expansion of lanes within the existing transportation system is justified.
The results of the Origins and Destination survey indicated a strong desire by residents to move in an east-west direction. Almost 80% of the respondents used a part or all of Veterans Drive as part of their trip. Therefore, most of the expansion, if any is needed, will happen along the major east/west corridor.
The results of the traffic studies show that Veterans Drive carried 22,000 cars per day in 1994, the year of the study, far above the 14,000 cars per day the road is designed to carry and certainly far below the projected 33,200 cars per day anticipated in the year 2015.
Veterans Drive is not the only traffic artery carrying a heavier load of traffic than it is designed for. In fact, the most over-burdened road in the system is the Raphune Hill Road. It should be pointed out that all of the major traffic arteries in Charlotte Amalie are undersized.
Traffic management cannot be the primary means to improve the overall system as a whole because all roads are underdesigned and cannot take excess capacity from Veterans Drive. Additional traffic lanes are needed to relieve the congestion.
However, those additional lanes do not represent the only solution to our congestion problems. Traffic management, satellite parking in conjunction with park and ride and possibly the incorporation of an alternate mode of tranportation such as water taxis or buses will also be required to work with the improved traffic system.
The chamber is correct in stating that simply building a roadway will not solve the problem. But, simply not doing any traffic improvements is an even worse scenario and will result in Charlotte Amalie strangling itself.
There are a limited number of roadway options available for solving congestion between Fort Christian and the Virgin Islands Legislature. Although Parsons studied more than 30 different options for Veterans Drive, they are all variations of four distinct approaches.
Those approaches include the following:
1. A bypass road which will go around Charlotte Amalie all together on the north side of the town.
2. A roadway solution involving a tunnel near the Fort Christian area.
3. A land-based solution which will result in a new roadway going north of Fort Christian.
4. A water-based solution which will have a roadway going around the V.I. Legislature on the south side.
The bypass around Charlotte Amalie was discarded early in the process because of its overall high cost for right-of-way acquisition, the impact on more than 150 landowners, and the adverse visual impact it would have upon the environment.
A bypass solution is no different than the Raphune Hill Bypass, which was originally part of this project. That solution involved several major bridges. A bypass solution for this portion of the transportation system would also include a major bridge over the deJongh Gut area. This bridge would be at least 900 feet long and several hundred feet above the floor of the gut.
The tunnel solution was considered in various forms throughout the design process. As a design concept, it is an attractive solution because it eliminates vehicular traffic, visually, from a major part of the traffic system. However, it is a solution that is extremely costly, presents maintenance problems and is susceptible to hurricane storm surges.
The cost of a small section of tunnel from the Tobolt Gade area to Hospital Gade would increase construction cost by an additional $50 million. The life cycle cost for maintaining the pumps and ventilators associated with the tunnels would also be high. This approach was, therefore, eliminated as being economically unfeasible.
Of the two remaining approaches, there are positive and negative impacts regarding each approach.
Any solution which goes north of the Fort as a land-based solution will effectively turn Fort Christian into a traffic island. This results in a negative impact to the oldest historical structure on the island. The traffic improvements would also have to be done on existing roadways that may disrupt the economy of downtown businesses tremendously during construction.
However, a land-based solution will not necessarily be any more negative from a vehicular point of view than the existing roadway system. This is due to the fact that most of the expansion will be on areas where vehicles presently travel.
On the surface, a water-based solution, such as Plan 8, allows for the expansion of the roadway system without affecting the existing transportation system. This will then result in minimal disruption to the downtown businesses during construction as compared to other design approaches.
However, from the roadway going around the Virgin Islands Legislature, there will be a disruption of a very historically prominent promontory in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. This promontory represents the last remaining historical shoreline in Charlotte Amalie harbor.
The selection of a final alternative, therefore, is one where difficult choices must be made regarding some of the most important and cherished buildings and areas in Charlotte Amalie.
The water-based solution will enhance the relationship of two very historic buildings – Fort Christian and the Virgin Islands Legislature. However, it will adversely affect an equally important historic promontory in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. The land-based solution will preserve the integrity of that promontory, but will continue to reinforce the separation of the two histo
ric structures and leave Fort Christian as nothing more than a glorified traffic island.
In conclusion, the ideas brought forth by the St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce make it clear that once the hard decision is made as to which design approach is utilized, that solution must include the revitalization of the shore front of Charlotte Amalie. The project will be a failure without the incorporation of land uses along the harbor.
I only hope that we, as a community, can form a consensus behind a traffic solution and utilize the infusion of these federal dollars to solve an old problem and enhance the town of Charlotte Amalie.
John P. Woods, AIA
Jaredian Design Group
HARD DECISIONS MUST BE MADE ON WATERFRONT
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