Time is running out for public comment on Public Works’ plans to fill a portion the Charlotte Amalie Harbor to allow for widening Veterans Drive along the waterfront and changing the face of the downtown area.
The clock started ticking Tuesday night after a Coastal Zone Management public hearing that was attended by no one but parties involved in the project, one active supporter and one newspaper reporter. The public has seven days to submit comments in writing; the committee has 30 days to make its decision whether to approve a CZM permit for the project.
Despite several forums sponsored by supporters to present the project, and stacks of documents filed at CZM, a number of details are still unknown – including the cost, where the fill will come from, and how Public Works will restore corals and seagrass it plans to move to make way for the landfill, if they survive relocation.
Funding is also uncertain; Gov. John deJongh wants to borrow against future federal highway funds but so far the Legislature has not approved that.
The concept of widening the highway – itself built on fill in the 1950s – has been floated in various forms for decades. In its CZM application, Public Works traced it back as far as 1975. The idea went dormant in 1999 – when a Blue Ribbon Commission was formed to make recommendations about alternative ways of addressing traffic congestion – and then “restarted” in 2006.
The current version involves creating landfill about 45-feet wide along a 1.28 mile stretch of road from the Long Bay/Lovers Lane intersection to the Windward Passage Hotel area. That will allow for more than doubling the width of the current road; creating four lanes of 11 feet width – rather than the current two of 9-feet width – and building a landscaped median strip.
The road would follow the existing outline except in the area of the Legislature building/Fort Christian and Vendors Plaza. Plans call for the road to wrap around the Legislature building and for Vendors Plaza to be relocated to a site as yet to be determined. There will be more landfill by the Legislature, some 100 feet-wide, to create a promenade and there will be fill in other “lookout” areas jutting into the harbor.
The St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Revitalization Inc. have endorsed the plan as one that will alleviate traffic congestion and beautify the downtown area while preserving its cultural and historic character. In December of 2012, CZM approved Phase I of the plan, which involves widening the section of the road from Lovers Lane to the Legislature.
What is being considered now, in effect, is the real meat of the project and involves the major landfill and aesthetic changes to the downtown area. It is being considered as an amendment to the first CZM permit approved two years ago.
The project will also need approval from the federal Army Corps of Engineers, but must first have approval from the Virgin Islands CZM before it can formally apply to the Army Corps.
CZM committee member Sarah “Peggy” Simmonds said Friday that she was surprised by how few people attended the public hearing. She’s asked for videos from the public forums sponsored by community groups to try to get an idea of public opinion expressed there.
“We didn’t see detailed construction plans” at the hearing, she said. “We saw a beautiful overview.” There was some discussion of what material will be used for the fill but no definitive answer; there is a possibility that Public Works can use fill created when the Water and Power Authority tears down the hillside near its plant to make way for the planned propane distribution plant. She said there was no discussion of dredging.
Public Works Commission Daryl Smalls has declined to say what the project will cost, saying there are unknown factors.
In a proposal for major borrowing submitted to the Legislature in June, Gov. John deJongh Jr. included $40 million in GARVEE – Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles – bonds to go toward the work of Phase I. They would be guaranteed by future transportation grants from the Federal Highway Administration to the territory.
In budget hearings early this week, Public Works staff said the department has already spent $11.3 million over the last 20 years towards studying alternatives and for planning for the Veterans Drive project.