Have you ever wondered why the roads in the Virgin Islands are riddled with potholes and who is responsible for maintaining the streets that residents must precariously navigate each day? Why do some streets seem to get maintained before others, while in some neighborhoods people have had to band together, buy cement and get the job done themselves?
The Virgin Islands Source wondered too and went to the Department of Public Works. This is what they had to say.
Department of Public Works Communications Specialist Renee Exius said the Division of Operations within the department handles road maintenance, which primarily consists of patching damaged roadways, stripping roads, installing and maintaining signage, maintaining traffic systems and maintaining and repairing drainage systems.
Street lighting and sewage are handled by other agencies, she said.
According to the Public Works website, 80 roadways projects are underway or pending. So how exactly is priority given?
Exius said priority is set for roadwork by completed work orders. It is in the hands of managers who “assess the roadways and make determinations based on the level of damage to the roadway, roadway utilization and safety considerations.” Projects seen on the website are not completed in numerical order, she said, but the status of each project is listed and updated as needed.
While it can appear that roads, such as those in Peterborg, might get maintained more frequently than the roads in Tutu or the south side, Exius said “this perception is inaccurate.”
“Prior to the recent roadwork completed at Peterborg, work was not done on this roadway for about 20 years,” she said. “Peterborg road is not heavily traveled, and as such, the deterioration process is much slower,” Exius said.
With such a substantial amount of road repairs and projects in need of completion throughout the territory, one might expect that Public Works has a sizeable taskforce to allow for speedy repairs, but this is hardly the case.
Exius said that on St. Thomas there are 13 staff members assigned to regular maintenance and repairs, eight on St. John and 15 on St. Croix. In addition to the Public Works road maintenance staff, she said roadside contractors are also used at times for maintenance such as patching, marking and stripping, overlays, major road repairs, as well as guard rail installations.
When asked if the Public Works has made a joint effort with the courts to utilize free, community service hours Exius said, “The department has not utilized individuals who are court-mandated for community service. However, we welcome the opportunity.”
One of the department’s greatest challenges Exius said, is lack of adequate drainage, which leads to pothole development and faster deterioration of the roads.
“Additionally, the department is dealing with a lack of adequate resources, manpower, funding and equipment. Finally, when individuals throw garbage and other waste materials in the street, it adds to the challenge of roadside maintenance.”
“In the past, some roads were constructed without proper drainage. Moving forward, the plans for all new roadways will address the drainage issues,” Exius said, adding that the department has specific drainage projects starting within the next five years.
Exius said it currently costs the government approximately $1 million to $2 million to construct one mile of roadway that meets federal standards.
So how much money does Public Works have in its budget to dole out to the maintaining of the roads, and how much does each island receive? Especially when, as Exius pointed out, road maintenance is not the department’s only responsibility. Public Works is also responsible for VITRAN, ferry boat service, guts, cemeteries and government facilities.
The department’s 2020 fiscal year budget includes $17.9 million from the General Fund to the department: 43 percent of that is allocated for personnel services, 16 percent for fringe benefits, three percent for supplies and four percent for utilities, leaving 42 percent for what the department calls “other services and charges.”
Within these other services and charges, only $7.5 million is allocated to things like training, abandoned vehicles and repairs and maintenance. The 2020 fiscal year budget includes $2.1 million for repairs and maintenance. According to Exius, that means the Virgin Islands would only be able to afford two miles of newly constructed roadway at most this year, and perhaps as little as one mile.
But these funds are further divided by the various territory’s three islands.
“The funding is not split equally between all three islands as each island has different square footage and maintenance needs,” she said.
Though the budget reads that Public Works will also receive $500,000 from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to assist with maintenance and capital improvement projects on that island, $300,000 from the Tourism Revolving Fund to assist with carnival festivities territorywide, $1 million from the Anti-Litter Fund to assist with roadside maintenance and anticipates receiving a potential combined total of $16.4 million in funds from the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration; the funding just scratches the surface of what the department demands in terms of fixing all roadways territorywide.
“The department is working to implement strategic plans that will increase the longevity of the roadways,” Exius said. “It may appear that progress is slow, but the truth is that progress takes time.”
In the meantime, Exius said Public Works welcomes and encourages public and private partnerships, “whereby individuals and businesses can volunteer their time and/or resources to assist the department.” For specific details or inquiries, she said individuals can contact the Public works commissioner’s office.
She also said the department is implementing an “asset management program” that will prioritize road repairs based on a condition assessment. Exius said the program would allow the public to make complaints or inquiries online and track the status of the work order from start to finish. This program is expected to come online during the first quarter of 2020.
Until the program is up and running Exius said the department encourages people to call and provide information regarding potholes and damaged roadways. Once the department receives the information, she said a work order is generated and enters the queue for processing, where work is then addressed as soon as possible.
People can contact Public Works by calling on 340-776-4844 on St. Thomas and St. John, or 340-773-1290 on St. Croix.