The long-proposed merger of the two government entities dealing with cruise ships has hit another snag as the Port Authority and the West Indian Co. have squared off over the planned dredging of Charlotte Amalie Harbor near the WICO docks.
The immediate argument is over just how deep to dredge and just who is going to pay for the dredging. There’s also the question of how soon the project may start.
The conflict has apparently been quietly simmering for some time. It boiled over this week after correspondence between the entities went public.
WICO President and CEO Anthony Ottley wrote last week to Carlton Dowe, executive director of the Port Authority, rejecting the suggestion that the dredging be limited to 36 feet and that if it goes deeper, cruise lines should pay the extra cost.
Ottley said parts of the harbor need to be dredged two to four feet deeper than that in order to accommodate the mega ships that cruise lines are currently building.
In letters to Ottley, several cruise lines have suggested they may discontinue some of their V.I. stops in the future if the dredge is only to 36 feet.
Dowe addressed the issue at a Port Authority Board meeting Wednesday and spoke to the Source afterward.
The director said he’s not opposed to digging deeper than 36 feet but asked, “Are the (cruise) lines ready to pay for that?” It’s not how deep to dredge; rather, “It’s what you can pay for.”
The Bryan administration has made the project a priority and the V.I. Public Finance Authority has provided $17 million to fund it.
Dowe indicated $17 million is enough to fund the project at 36 feet but estimated it will cost another six million to 8 million dollars to go deeper.
He said the Army Corps of Engineers has determined that 36 feet will be deep enough to accommodate cruise ships currently docking on St. Thomas.
Attempts to reach Ottley Wednesday were unsuccessful.
In his letter to Dowe, Ottley said WICO had conducted “extensive research” 10 years ago that found the harbor would need considerable dredging in order to safely handle the bigger ships being designed and built.
“It was determined at that time that the Charlotte Amalie Harbor would need depths of 12.1 meters (40′) in the main channel, 11.5 meters (38′) in the turning basin and 10.9 meters (36′) at the WICO berths. Since this due diligence, the cruise industry has commissioned even larger than anticipated ships, and the channel has become even more restricted with sand and sediment from storm runoff and storm surge,” Ottley wrote.
He called Dowe’s suggestion that the cruise lines be tapped to help pay for the project “frankly, indefensible” because they have been paying for dredging maintenance for years.
“It is simply inequitable that VIPA has collected over $130 million since 2004 on passengers visiting the WICO dock and yet VIPA has no funds to supplement PFA’s donation to complete the dredging as established in the (CZM permit) Application,” Ottley wrote.
Attached to his letter were several communications from cruise line officials supporting the deeper dredging.
With a 36-foot depth, “the safety margin is significantly reduced,” said Cpt. Karl Austin, vice president for Maritime Standards with Carnival Cruise Lines. He said the “QM2” (Queen Mary 2) called on St. Thomas three times in 2022 and has more calls planned for the 2024-2025 season, but “these calls would no longer be possible if the proposed depth reductions were to go ahead.”
Disney Cruise Line also supported the deeper dredging as outlined by WICO ten years ago.
“As a first step with the current channel encroachments by material, due to storm surge, the soonest that the original depths can be returned to the original project depth the better, as with high winds and the drift that our vessels and others incur while entering and departing the port means that we have less operational space with adequate under keel clearance,” wrote Russell Daya, executive director for Marine Operations at Disney, adding, “which may, if this continues, lead to vessels having to restrict their transits in and out of port to lesser wind and weather conditions, which may lead to delays in arrivals and departures.”
Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings Ltd., which represents Oceania Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, also supported WICO’s efforts for deeper dredging.
“Based on internal policy and given the factors of speed, squat, turning, weather, etc. — the main channel and turning basin would need to be at the WICO-proposed levels in order to be safe during approaches and during maneuvering,” said Luis Ruiz, senior director for port operations for Norwegian. “The trend of ships getting larger, not smaller and reduction of the controlling depth would only limit options for vessel traffic here in the future.”
While the cost is the main issue for the Port Authority, Dowe said he is also concerned about proposed dredging at St. Croix’s cruise port and at Crown Bay, the docks operated by the Port Authority. Neither of those projects is nearly as far along as the WICO dredging near Long Bay.
“The permit that’s in right now is only WICO,” Dowe said. But he wants to coordinate the projects in order to save money on the transport and operation of the heavy equipment that will be needed. “These things are going to take some time.”
Meanwhile, it’s clear that the issue has further strained the relationship between the two entities, which have been in competition with one another for many years.
Ottley’s letter to Dowe concluded with, “Once again, I would also like to formally request that WICO be included in all meetings and correspondence concerning the dredging project. The importance of this project for WICO demands our inclusion.”