St Vincent prepares to open new international airport in 2014
Kenton X. Chance
KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, Monday January 27, 2014, CMC – Six years after construction work began, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is getting ready to cut the ribbons to declare open its first ever international airport.
The Ralph Gonsalves government is hoping that the EC$700 million (One EC dollar = US$0.37 cents) international airport at Argyle, will be completed by the end of this year, even as the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) continues to cast doubt on the project, situated on the island’s east coast.
When he delivered his budget statement earlier this month, Prime Minister Gonsalves said that the airport was “on target for completion by the end of 2014”.
At the end of last year, the Taiwanese firm, Overseas Engineering Construction Company, handed over the US$28 million terminal building along with the electrical substation to the International Airport Development Company (IADC), the state company responsible for the construction of the airport.
IADC chief executive officer, Rudy Matthias, believes the airport could be completed as early as July.
“First and most importantly, I want to tell you that our terminal building is now complete…and we expect that by July 2014 to complete the final pavement works on the runway and the apron. So, in a sense, by July .., God’s willing, we are going to have a completed terminal building and a runway and apron having been paved. Essentially, that is our airport,” he said late last month.
Last week, Prime Minister Gonsalves gave Parliament an idea of the scope of work still to be done at the airport.
He said that at the end of last year, 89 per cent of the earthworks had been completed and sea defence works, which began on August 12, 2013, would extend into mid-2014.
Work is being done at the southern end of the runway to allow for the installation of the simple approach lighting system and drainage works are scheduled to be completed in June.
Gonsalves told legislators that the laying of stony base materials on the runway, which began in September 2013, was slated to continue this month. When the laying of the base is completed, the placing of the final layers of asphalt and concrete pavement of the aprons, taxiways, and runway, will begin.
The authorities say installation of the lighting equipment will be done during the first quarter of the year. But work on the control tower and aircraft rescue and fire fighting building are yet to begin. The construction of these facilities is scheduled to be completed in August.
The IADC has made a deposit on three fire-fighting trucks and equipment to allow for their delivery by September 2014. The contract for the construction of the air cargo terminal is expected to be awarded by March 2014, for completion of construction by September 2014.
Gonsalves said the IADC was holding talks with relevant private operators for the financing, construction, and operation of a fixed based operation and several aircraft hangars, adding that work on these projects would begin soon.
But Opposition leader Arnhim Eustace is not impressed. He has pointed to the level of disbursement, rather than the scale of works or the availability of funds, as he casts doubts on the Prime Minister’s prediction.
“This level of disbursement, which I anticipate can exceed EC$250 million, if everything was to go as planned, will not be achieved,” said the economist and former prime minister.
“We do not have the implementation capacity … and our history shows it. … It is rare that we have ever exceeded 100 million dollars [in a year].
“I, therefore, have grave doubt about our ability to complete the airport in 2014,” he said.
When completed, the airport will have a runway 9,000 feet long and 150 feet wide.
The passenger terminal building, which has separate sections for domestic and international travellers, is designed to handle about 1.5 million passengers annually.
The airport is being built to accommodate jets as large as Boeing 747-400s and will allow for direct flights to St. Vincent and the Grenadines from the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America, Gonsalves said.
But notwithstanding its potential to transform the local economy, the international airport, has been a divisive project since Gonsalves proposed it in 2005, with most position on the project being informed by their politics.
The airport was a central campaign issue of the general elections campaigns of 2005 and 2010 and will no doubt be again in the next poll, constitutionally due in 2015.
Political observers say if the airport is completed by the time of the next general elections and the country is already reaping the benefits from the years of sacrifice, the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP), which is vying for a fourth consecutive term in office, will understandably claim credit.
But if it fails to be completed in time, the political observers say the government will, as it has done in the past, point to the tough economic times or other challenges and urge voters to stick with the project.
Eustace and other opposition politicians are expected to raise counter arguments, insisting that the project is too much of an expensive venture for the island of less than 100,000 people.
In 2005, the estimated cost of the airport was EC$480.6 million. But after the final designs for the airfield in December 2007, the cost was revised to EC$589 million. In late 2008, increasing to EC$700 million due mainly to the higher cost of construction, increased earth and site works, and purchase of acquired lands.
Last year, the government said that it needed US$80 million to complete the airport, and after receiving Parliament’s permission to borrow some of the funds, said that it had secured all the monies needed to complete the project.
“The IADC has assured me that once it receives all the earmarked resources on a timely basis, it would meet the deadlines it has given to the Government,” Gonsalves told legislators last week.
The government is hoping that some of the international airlines will begin discussions for service agreements in 2014.
But Eustace has said that the government borrowed much more than the EC$80 million saying that the figure was EC$158 million.
He said the country could ill afford that amount at a time when it is dealing with damages caused by a low level trough over the Christmas holidays estimated at EC$300 million.
“What has suddenly changed to allow us to exceed maybe 250 million dollars in disbursements in a single financial year? What is there in our system to facilitate that kind of level of disbursement?” Eustace asked. Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)