V.I. Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls and staff updated the Government Services and Housing Committee with a long list of road projects Friday at the Earl B. Ottley Legislature Building, but senators complained about still not having enough time for questions due, in part, by the commissioner’s unresponsiveness.
Public Works is responsible for designing, constructing and maintaining government buildings, public roads, public cemeteries and public parking lots. The department also manages public transportation and protects public and private property during natural disasters.
“The patching of our territory’s roads remains a top priority of this department,” Smalls said. “During my confirmation speech back in 2007, I committed to attacking these killer potholes,” despite the weather, lack of asphalt and funding.
Smalls pointed out the Public Works budget was $28.5 million in Fiscal Year 2007 and had dropped to $18 million by 2014. He said the “single most critical impediment” is not having a capital improvement fund to maintain the territory’s roads. A $4 million annual fund would facilitate necessary road maintenance, he said.
Wystan Benjamin, Public Works highway program manager, outlined the department’s accomplishments and current and upcoming projects, including those without funding.
Within the last five years, seven projects were completed on St. Thomas, including repairs to the Mandela Circle intersection, widening the Long Bay Road, repairs to Crown Mountain/Estate Dorothea, a sidewalk at the University of the Virgin Islands and pavement improvements throughout the island, Benjamin said.
St. Croix’s completed projects included repairs to the Queen Mary Highway, Scenic Drive, the Christiansted Bypass and a roadside safety project. Funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 were used on the highway and roadside projects.
There were also four projects completed on St. John, including a roadside safety project, a ferry boat project and road improvements with ARRA funds. A roundabout intersection was the fourth project completed on St. John.
There are eight renovations currently under way in the territory at a cost of $29.3 million, Benjamin said. On St. Croix, work is being done on the Melvin Evans highway, Scenic Road, Mahogany Road, Creque Dam road and the Hams Bluff road. There also are plans to reconfigure the sidewalks in both towns to conform to American Disabilities Act requirements.
On St. Thomas, the department is working on Frenchman’s Bay Road, Rothschild Francis Square, Routes 303/394/334 and islandwide pavement rehabilitation.
St. John’s repairs to Centerline Road are ongoing, Benjamin said.
Future projects, in the process of being advertised or awarded, include Brookman Road, Hotel Company Fire Station, Veterans Drive and Hull Bay on St. Thomas.
Undertakings to be awarded on St. Croix include Melvin Evans Highway, Clifton Hill and Centerline Road on St. John. Other miscellaneous pavement improvements are being planned on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Sens. Clifford Graham and Alicia “Chuckie” Hansen asked about ferry service between St. Thomas and St. Croix. A recent request-for-proposal produced one bidder, Smalls said. There are federal funds to buy a vessel, but the territory would be responsible for maintenance. There could be a ferry in the water within the next 30 days, he said.
Several senators questioned Smalls and his staff about repairs to the Hams Bluff Road on St. Croix. Only $300,000 has been identified for small repairs – “a drop in the bucket,” Smalls acknowledged. Between $4 and $5 million will be needed, but have not been identified, for permanent repairs, according to Smalls.
“You can’t even drive on that road,” said Sen. Diane Capehart, committee chairperson. She showed a photo of the crumbling road and collapsing storm drains.
Sen. Craig Barshinger suggested Smalls advise truck drivers that fines may be imposed if they continue to overload vehicles that pound the road to and from the rock quarry.
Barshinger complimented Smalls for being polite and likable, but was one of the senators to criticize Smalls for not responding to requests from senators.
“You drive senators crazy with your nonresponsiveness,” Barshinger said. “We can’t get in touch with you to get information.”
Sen. Terrance “Positive” Nelson also chastised Smalls for not returning phone calls and for not providing a road prioritization plan that has been promised for years.
“Paving the road has become a political item and we can’t have it,” Nelson said.
Public Works chief engineer Nicole Turner talked about the state of the road system in the territory. The engineering division provides planning and construction management for local and federally funded government projects, she said.
Public Works building and road construction projects totaled approximately $50 million over the last five years, she said. Her list of accomplishments included 17 road construction and resurfacing projects on St. Thomas, 22 on St. Croix, three on Water Island and one of St. John.
Emergency repairs were necessary after torrential rains last November and December. According to Turner, repairs were made on the St. Thomas waterfront as well as the Queen Mary Highway, Route 82 in Cotton Valley, Midland Road and in Estate Grove Place on St. Croix.
Future but unfunded projects include roads on Rattan Hill, Estate Work and Rest, the Sunny Isles Intersection, Emancipation Drive, Castle Coakely and Centerline Road on St. Croix, Turner reported.
St. Thomas has five unfunded plans including roads to Brewer’s Bay, Mafolie, Agnes Fancy, Bovoni and Donoe Bypass.
Hansen grilled Smalls about the state of St. Croix cemeteries and asked about expansion for a section for veterans laid to rest. Smalls said there are two acres on the west side of the Kingshill Cemetery designated for veterans and, although there are no cemetery employees, the facilities are in working order.
Hansen contradicted Smalls and said her staff inspected the sites and found that the bathrooms were not working.
At Hansen’s request, Capehart ordered Smalls’ staff to accompany him to the next hearing.
The lack of road stripes was mentioned by Capehart, who said she took a picture of a car, apparently filled with tourists, who stopped at an intersection under the light because there were no markings indicating where to wait for a light to change.
“I feel sorry for individuals who are not familiar with our roads,” Capehart said.
Turner said $1.5 million was appropriated by the 29th Legislature and a smaller amount was set aside for 2014 for lining roads. So far, markings have been painted at crosswalks and major intersections.
Senators present at the meeting included Capehart, Nelson, Craig Barshinger, Judi Buckley, Clifford Graham, Donald Cole, Hansen and noncommittee members Sens. Tregenza Roach and Janette Millen Young.