Carlton Dowe, executive director of Virgin Islands Port Authority, delivered some good news and some bad news to St. John residents during a town hall meeting held at the Legislative Annex Monday night.
First, the good news: The gravel lot, which has been closed for an upgrade since mid-August, resulting in a major parking crisis in Cruz Bay, will reopen Monday, Dec. 16.
Next, the bad news: The Port Authority’s plan to start charging for parking will be implemented when the lot opens Monday. Initially, residents and visitors will pay a flat rate of $10 a day.
Once the equipment is installed to keep track of when vehicles come and go, the rates will be higher than the current rates for parking at the airport on St. Thomas, according one community activist.
The Port Authority has proposed that residents be allowed one-half hour of free parking at the gravel lot, which residents said was not even enough time to walk to the post office and back, given the gravel lot’s location near the Theovald E. Moorehead Marine Terminal.
Dowe responded that free, short-term parking would be available at the Customs lot (across from the post office) upon completion of construction of the nearby Customs and Border Protection building. More than half of that lot was fenced off last summer when construction began, further exacerbating the parking crisis. Dowe could not confirm an exact date when the Customs lot would reopen, but said he hoped it would be ready by February 2020.
At Monday’s meeting, Port Authority distributed handouts listing the proposed rates at the gravel lot. From 30 minutes to one hour, the rate will be $4. From one hour to two hours, the rate will be $6. From two hours to three hours, the rate will be $8. From three hours to 10 hours – which will barely cover the time required by a typical worker who commutes to St. Thomas – the rate will be $12. From 10 hours to 24 hours, the rate will be $15.
Community activist Pam Gaffin pointed out after the hearing that the rate for one hour of parking at the Cyril E. King Airport is $2, half that of the proposed rate for the gravel lot, while the 24-hour rate at the airport is $10, $5 less than the proposed rate for the gravel lot.
When audience members asked if discount rates could be offered to St. John residents, senior citizens and other groups who would find paying the new rates a hardship, Dowe said that residents and business owners would have the option of purchasing a monthly parking pass of $175. At those rates, parking for a year would cost $2,100.
When residents protested that teachers, nurses and small business owners would have a hard time coming up with an additional $2,100 annually to pay for parking, Dowe said, “Just like you budget for gasoline, start budgeting for parking.”
The Port Authority recently expanded the area of the gravel lot, and Dowe said he expects there will be room for 200 vehicles. If all 200 spaces are taken at the daily rate of $15, the Port Authority stands to earn $3,000 a day – more than $1 million a year.
“Seems like you guys are going for a profit,” said St. John resident Emanuel Boyd.
“We operate to pay our bills,” Dowe said, explaining that as a semi-autonomous entity, the Port Authority receives no funds from the central government. VIPA must fund its projects and pay its staff of more than 300 by charging fees, leasing properties and applying for federal grants.
Improvements to the gravel lot include new lighting, cameras and 24-hour security, and although government departments have asked for discounted space, “We can’t afford a free ride,” Dowe said.
After calculating that the Port Authority could potentially earn nearly $100,000 a month from the lot, resident Jim Provost asked if the rates could be lowered.
Dowe responded that the Cruz Bay ferry dock needs a lot of work; plans are underway to install bathrooms, cover a larger portion of the waiting area and replace the bulkheads, cleats and fenders at the ferry dock.
“We could revisit our fee structure at some point,” he said.
When St. John residents asked for access to financial statements to ascertain what portion of the fees collected at the gravel lot would be used to fund improvements on St. John, Dowe replied, “I run the Port Authority for all islands; I don’t try to figure out what comes from St. Thomas or St. John. We’re one entity.”
Several residents brought up the recurring problem of flooding on the road adjacent to the gravel lot that has occurred since the wetlands were cleared to construct the nearby marine terminal and the gravel lot was opened. After some heated discussion, Dowe said he would meet with officials from the Department of Public Works and other departments to see about the possibility of raising the roadbed.
David Silverman, who now serves on the St. John Coastal Zone Management board, asked Dowe for a copy of the 2010 permit that allowed for construction of the gravel lot.
“Although Dowe referred to the land where the gravel parking lot is located as ‘Port Authority property,’ it is, in fact, filled wetlands, which means that it is Trust Lands of the Virgin Islands,” Silverman said.
“Trust Lands are owned by the Virgin Islands government. The initial CZM permit for the parking facility allowed for the creation of 151 free parking places. The fact that the Port Authority initially secured use of Virgin Islands Trust Lands for free parking [a use clearly in the public interest] and is now modifying that use for paid parking is troubling. Was the use obtained under false pretenses?” Silverman asked.
Silverman said according to Dowe, “In 2014, the Port Authority went to the bond market to secure funding for a number of projects, including upgrades to the gravel lot to include ‘paid parking.’ However, the CZM permit modification allowing for paid parking was not approved until May 2016, and it’s unclear exactly what modifications were approved at that time.”
Dowe said the Port Authority’s public information officer would provide the documents Silverman was seeking. Dowe was not working for the Port Authority in May 2016 when that permit was issued, and Silverman was not a member of the St. John CZM board at that time.