“Doable” Airport Project Raises Many Questions

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“Let us go out and march,” residents announced as a solution to their disagreement with the proposed airport expansion project that the Government announced; the project has been described an economic panacea and the Opposition declared it could become a stone around the Territory’s neck.

At the heart of both the public and Opposition concerns is the government’s December announcement that China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) was selected as the preferred bidder for the runway extension project at Terrence B Lettsome International Airport.

It was further noted that the bid advanced by the CCCC was $153,432,572.10, and that negotiations are now underway between Government and the preferred bidder with the hope of wrapping up contractual agreement within three months.

The outcry against the project was illustrated by three residents of the Speak Out BVI radio program on 24 January. In all of the calls the residents opined that the project should not be scrapped entirely, but rather put on hold until the Territory is in better financial standing. There are also concerns about the world economy especially now that the USA is taking unprecedented protectionist measures that could backfire and cause havoc on the world economy.

The first mention of staging a march was made by a resident who announced that Virgin Islanders of the past took similar actions. The man said: “This country, the British Virgin Islands as far as I know, from history it was three times that people of the BVI got angry and marched down to government house.”

“The first time the government tax cows and a man by the name of Christopher Flemming march down to government house, and he run the Commissioner off he seat with a cutlass. The second time was IG Fonseca, Theodore Faulkner and Carlton de Castro…when we were treated like dogs… The last time it happened was with Noel Lloyd Positive Action Movement and I mightn’t be around for too long but I believe this country will get serious revolution,” the caller stated.

A female caller who was most vocal about the protest told host of the Program Doug Wheatley: “We need to get down there and march if we don’t want an airport in our country! We vote for them in, go down there and march. I would go down there and march. Get down put up your sign and march, what happen the other day with Trump…all them girl in California came out, Africa come out, France come out, England come out; why we can’t come out, why??”

“Let’s go out so the world can see what happening here…We holding on now. Anytime we don’t want the airport built because, we not financially ready for that, then go down and march; what we ‘fraid of,” the woman added.

Premier and Minister for Finance, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith spent considerable time during the 16 January budget speech addressing matters relating to the airport expansion project.

The BVI Leader declared that the project is central to the economic future of the Territory and is an economic necessity that will bring both immediate and long term benefits to the Territory and its economy by advancing the financial services and tourism industries. He also opined that the project is central in the pursuit of other new industries or subsectors of the current ones.

Hon. Smith noted that the expansion is government’s long term solution to the air access situation, and noted that the cost associated even concerns members of government: “That expansion, Madame Speaker, is a costly undertaking and, even among my colleagues, there is a concern that this project would not allow them to always have discretionary funds for other simultaneous infrastructural spending which is extremely important and entirely necessary.”

“However, the airport extension is a must for our own economic survival, because it opens the door to other industries and other revenue streams…We have to move forward boldly with this project.  We have made similar bold steps in the past.  We did so with the hospital and the sewerage project and must do so with the runway extension,” the Premier declared.

$153 Million or $300 Million?

The Minister of Finance further noted that the business plan and economic study around which the arguments for the airport expansion project are based, demonstrate that, within the first year of the construction of the airport, the BVI should directly realize in excess of a five percent increase in gross domestic product over what we would realize if we do not embark on this project.  Further he noted that the plans show that within three years of the commencement of the project, projections show a difference in excess of 20 percent in GDP with the airport expansion as opposed to negative growth without it.

Nonetheless, the concerns around the project seem to stem from the belief that at the present the Territory is not in a position to afford the cost associated with the project. This concern was also touched on by the Premier.

Concerned citizens are worried, especially after the burdensome, unexpected, mind-boggling extra $30 Million spent on Cruise Pier. By the same token, is the airport extension going to actually cost $300 Million, community members are asking. All major projects of the last decades ended with supplementary expenditure ranging from 50 to 100% over the initial budget [Beef Island Bridge and Airport; Cruise Ship Pier 1st and 2nd phase; Peebles Hospital etc] – a situation untenable in a world economy in shambles and with a Britain busy with Brexit, turning a blind eye to the unavoidable dramatic consequences.

The Premier said: “careful economic analysis and projections have been done to determine the affordability of this project which is estimated at some $153,500,000. The in-depth analysis demonstrated minimum negative impact on our liquidity in the short term and substantial improvements to the fiscal position of central government in the medium to long term.”

Financial Secretary Gives Assurance

Moments after the Premier’s Budget Address, Financial Secretary Neil Smith announced that the figures indicate that the Territory can afford such a project at this time: “When you look at the medium term fiscal plan, obviously, we can afford it if we borrow for it. And there is also another model where you can have somebody build it for you and after a number of years, maybe 50 years, you get it back…But we have gone through the numbers, it’s doable, it’s very doable, but we have to maintain the discipline when we’re actually building the runway to make sure we don’t go over budget.”

“There are big banks we have been speaking to who can do it very easily, but we haven’t done anything because we needed to get a decision from Cabinet to proceed with the project, to negotiate. But we haven’t started negotiations (with CCCC),” the Financial Secretary added.

Opposition Concerns

Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Julian Fraser after noting the Premier and Government’s comments about the present need to move forward with the airport project announced that he is unsure that the project will deliver the estimated returns.

“I am not too sure the folks are going to come direct; once they start booking their flights direct they are going to realize that maybe coming through St. Thomas is more attractive, or through Puerto Rico, because they can access more United States cities than they would flying direct to the BVI,” Hon. Fraser announced.

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