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Territory Needs to Boost Infrastructure to Keep Tourists Coming, Senators Say

Oct. 2, 2007 — To stave off competition from neighboring Caribbean islands, the territory must maintain and build on its current infrastructure, including roads, marine facilities and airports, senators said Tuesday.
The comments came during a meeting of the Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee as senators grilled representatives of the V.I. Port Authority (VIPA) about the status of outstanding capital-improvement projects.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone lamented the fact that more cruise ships are turning toward islands such as St. Martin and Dominica, whose governments have partnered with private agencies to construct and invest in state-of-the-art ports and other attractions. The territory's tourism base will continue to erode if potential economy-building projects continue to stay within the pipeline, he said.
"We have to get aggressive and show that we're serious about tourism," Malone said. "Time waits for no man, and while other destinations are improving their infrastructure, we're here still trying to figure out what we're doing."
Not so, said VIPA Executive Director Darlan Brin. The agency currently has several projects in the works, he said, including expansions planned for both of the territory's airports and the waterfront apron in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
"In terms of the airport, we have plans that run us for about the next 12 years," Brin said. "On St. Thomas, for example, we're going to install a new baggage belt, and shift the entrance so that when passengers come in through the gate, they'll turn left and go immediately into the baggage claim."
VIPA is also in the process of awarding a $4 million contract to resurface the east taxiway at Henry Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix, he said. The project is expected to begin in November and should take about four to five months to complete.
The first set of plans for the expansion of the waterfront apron– which will begin near the Coast Guard facility on St. Thomas and run to the Wilmoth Blyden terminal — have already been completed, Brin said. However, the authority has run up against a few roadblocks and still has to figure out how it will fund the project and what it will do with a large water main that connects and services most of the downtown area, he said.
"The water line that runs under the apron erupts from time to time," he explained. "It did that again recently, and some panels of the apron had to be removed. So if we were to make any substantial improvements, we would suffer if it keeps on erupting. WAPA says that it is an old line, which they want to replace. But we recommend that when they do repair it, they keep it across the roadway rather than having it run under the apron."
VIPA sent out a request for proposals for private companies interested in developing the section of the apron where yachts frequently berth, Brin said. Though the project had been awarded, he said, nothing has developed. Meanwhile, VIPA will meet soon with the governor to discuss another means of financing the project, estimated to cost some $12 million, he said.
The authority is also looking at expanding its container port facilities, and could soon shift some of the cargo operations on St. Thomas to a new facility in Stalley Bay, Brin said.
"This won't be a substitute for the major cargo operations, but it will relocate some of the heavier bulk cargo that comes into Crown Bay," he said. "The heavy cargo going between St. Thomas and St. John could also go out from this facility."
Responding to senators' concerns about increased noise from the Crown Bay port, Brin explained that one of the territory's major freight companies has begun moving some its containers between midnight and early morning. Though the agency has received a steady stream of complaints from at least one nearby resident, most of the moving is done in areas that sit about 150 feet away from any of the Frenchtown communities, he said.
"The problem is that we don't have enough space to store the empty shipping containers during the day," Brin said. "I have spoken to the manager of Sea Star Line about the issue, and they have told me that the only way in which the noise would stop is if their entire operation ceases. Otherwise we would have to bring the containers through the public road or another company's site."
Switching gears, VIPA representatives updated senators on the status of the authority's now-expired franchise agreement with the V.I. Taxi Association, which has been extended on a month-to-month basis pending the outcome of negotiations between the two entities. If a new agreement cannot be reached, the franchise will be put out to bid, said VIPA attorney Henry Carr III.
"The best proposal for improving ground transportation at the Cyril E. King Airport will be selected," he said. "However, we also have to keep in mind that the Department of Transportation has promulgated new rules that became effective as of last April, which state that airport sponsors can no longer enter into exclusive long-term concession agreements without FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) approval. We have to be mindful of that as we go forward."
VIPA also plans to appeal a 2006 court ruling that found the authority and two local hotels had violated the franchise agreement by allowing other taxi operators to pick up passengers at Cyril E. King, Carr said. (See "VIPA, Two Hotels, Have Until Thursday to Pay Taxi Association Fines.")
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Malone, Basil Ottley Jr. and Alvin L. Williams.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson was absent.
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