Carlton Dowe, executive director of the V.I. Port Authority, presented the agency’s $246 million budget for fiscal year 2024 to the Budget, Appropriations, and Finance Committee Monday.
The budget anticipates a 7.9 percent decrease from the 2023 budget. Calling the decrease significant, Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory asked how it came about.
Dowe said it was mostly due to changes in capital projects and there was not a shortage of projects listed in his report. He testified, “Our capital project program is designed to execute the mandate of the authority. We have budgeted for a total of $175.1 million for major capital equipment and facility upgrades for the airport and seaports in St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.”
The first project he discussed was the Port Authority’s plan to pursue an arrangement with a private airport investor, operator, and terminal developer to modernize and upgrade both the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix and the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas. The plan was made public in January.
He said the project would involve the redevelopment of both airports and would bring state-of-the-art amenities, private investment, efficient airport operations, and long-term maintenance plans to the airports. He added that the partnership would not be a privatization of the airport terminals.
Several senators questioned what this partnership would mean to current employees. Dowe said the authority intended to see no employee terminated. However, he added that it was difficult to see how the plan would work exactly, but it would be up to the employee whether they chose to stay with the authority or go to the private partner. He said the private sector partner would be responsible for running the airports, but VIPA would remain the owner of both airports.
In April, VIPA’s Board of Governors selected four qualified proposers from submitted statements of interest.
Before that happens, the St. Thomas airport should have a parking and transportation center project costing $32 million when completed. This project will add more than 500 parking spaces at the airport and provide parking for taxis and rental car operations. VIPA received a $20 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help fund this project. The remainder is funded by VIPA and car rental facility fees — a daily fee charged to each customer who rents a car at the airport.
Another project at the King Airport is a $30 million project to replace 58,000 square yards of asphalt from Taxiway A West with Portland cement concrete.
Another St. Thomas project Dowe reported on was the demolition of the former Island Beachcomber property in Lindbergh Bay and leasing the property to a hotel developer. Sen. Marvin Blyden said the property has become an eyesore. The property is near the road to the St. Thomas airport. Sen. Novelle Francis said the road to the St. Croix airport was “deplorable.” Dowe agreed and said he wanted to do something about it but was powerless, and it was up to Public Works.
As for marine division capital projects, Dowe started with a $158,556 project to dredge around the St. Urman V. Fredricks Marine Terminal Barge Ramp in Red Hook.
Francis wanted a timeline on projects at the Gallows Bay Harbor and the Frederiksted Pier on St. Croix, but Dowe was not forthcoming with any.
He said there was “beautiful coral” in the Gallow Bay Harbor, and it was questionable whether the federal government would allow the territory to disturb that coral or move it.
Frett-Gregory said she was concerned about the decline in visitors coming to the territory by air. In 2019, the territory had almost one million visitors arrive by air. The Port Authority is predicting a little over 800,000 air visitors in the upcoming fiscal year.
Dowe said there were several factors contributing to the decline, including high airline ticket prices.
VIPA’s budget funding sources, as he reported for the upcoming fiscal year, include operating revenues of $74 million; passenger facility charges of $327,000; car rental facility charges of $2 million; capital grants of $133 million; cash reserves and other, $22 million; ARPA Act $6.4 million, and government grants $3.8 million.
VIPA has a total of 345 employees. Payroll, taxes, and benefits account for 49 percent of VIPA’s expenses.
In his conclusion, Dowe said, “The board and I will continue to be aggressive in our approach to improving and modernizing our facilities. The rest of the world is not waiting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. The time to progress is now.”
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Angel Bolques Jr., Dwayne DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Alma Francis Heyliger, Novelle Francis Jr., Donna Frett-Gregory, Franklin Johnson, and Carla Joseph were in attendance at Monday’s hearing.