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Federal Money Pushing Road Projects Ahead

March 5, 2009 – Not a lot of local money is available for road repairs, but the continued influx of federal funds has helped some major projects push ahead throughout the two districts, Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls told senators Thursday.
Over the past five years, about $51.8 million in local funds been appropriated for various road projects, but to date, only about $22.2 million of that has actually been obligated or spent, officials explained at a meeting of the Senate's Financial Services, Infrastructure and Consumer Affairs Committee. The meeting was designed to provide senators with an update on various capital projects and how they're being funded.
A shortfall in government revenues sometimes forces projects to be put on hold, while other times, skyrocketing construction costs, a slow-moving bid process or lack of available equipment keep them on the back burner, according to Debra Gottlieb, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Meanwhile, some government revenue streams — such as the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund — are overburdened with appropriations, she said in response to a question from Sen. Usie R. Richards about when the $3 million currently owed to the fund would be transferred.
"Sometimes there are amounts appropriated for projects, but we're not sure where those numbers come from," Gottlieb said. "Sometimes the money may not be sufficient to address what we want to address. During the fiscal year, the first two quarters are generally not our best in terms of revenues, but hopefully we should be able to catch up by April, when the taxes are paid, and we can take care of some more major projects."
Money is starting to become free for some of the appropriations, but for those projects that have languished for years the cost of construction has increased, Smalls said. Public Works continues to push forward "undeterred," revising scopes of work for existing repairs and developing new scopes of work for upcoming projects, he added. Meanwhile, the department's inability to conduct preventative road maintenance is creating a revolving door of repairs, Smalls said.
"We have years and years worth of overlays," he explained. "In Puerto Rico, they actually reconstruct the roads, meaning they rip up the asphalt and build it back up. What we have been doing here for years is just paving over the existing roadways. Since money is not appropriated for reconstruction, which would allow us to go down, excavate and address the problems at the base, we're continuing to see the same problems."
Bringing on more road construction workers, and training staff internally to take over some of the major roadwork would help expedite the languishing projects, some senators said. While Public Works does as much as it can in-house, the problem lies with providing potential workers with a salary that matches their experience and qualifications, Smalls said.
Meanwhile, the territory is soon expecting upwards of $18 million in federal economic stimulus funds for various projects throughout the territory, and another $1.2 million to upgrade bus shelters and other facilities. Over the next two years, the funding should be distributed evenly throughout the districts, Smalls said. (See "Governor Works to Steer Federal Economic-Stimulus Money.")
Ongoing Projects
There are currently no locally funded road projects underway on St. John, Smalls said. Public Works anticipates completing the federally funded Texaco round-about in June 2010 and the second phase of the Gifft Hill road project sometime this year. Officials are also reviewing bids to address flooding around the Guy Benjamin Elementary School, Smalls said.
"Funding has been provided by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), however, the bids we've received exceeded the amount allotted for the project," he explained. "Thus, the DPW engineering team is evaluating the scope to determine if the work could be completed in phases."
On St. Croix, the first phase of the $20 million Christiansted by-pass project is expected to wrap up within the next 60 days. Another federally funded project — improvements to the scenic road — is currently being put out for bid, Smalls said. The project is expected to begin sometime next month, and is scheduled for completion within 295 days, he added.
Two locally funded projects, including much-discussed road improvements in Estate Williams Delight, are currently under way on St. Croix. While bids for the project have already come in, an "important omission" from the bid schedule forced Public Works to withdraw and revise the bid package, which will be re-advertised next week, he said. A contractor should be selected by the end of the month, with construction starting in April, Smalls explained. Public Works currently has $6 million out of the $7.5 million needed for the project, he said.
Work on Creque Dam Road and the Ethel McIntosh Memorial Drive has already started and Public Works expects to start and finish seven other projects by the end of June, Smalls said. Once the money is identified, the department will move ahead with a flood mitigation project in Estate LaGrange, he said.
On St. Thomas, the first phase of the $15 million Long Bay Road project is expected to wrap up within a year. Meanwhile, work on Brookman and Pollyberg roads is expected to start in the next few months and finish up within 400 days, Smalls said.
Heavy rains brought by Hurricane Omar last year led to the collapse of a portion of Route 3017 in Savan. Plans to fix the road have been submitted for federal funding, and once bids come in, permanent repairs will be completed within 180 days, Smalls said. The rehabilitation of specific roads in Red Hook should also wrap up in June, while pothole repairs on Coki Point road is scheduled for completion by the end of the month, he added.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Neville James, Wayne James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, Richards, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.

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