Anyone who wonders about the toll that numerous road projects are taking on St. Thomas vehicles need only show up at Elder Automotive early on a weekday morning.
“They are so irate about the roads, it’s unbelievable,” Donna Jozwiak, who runs the popular auto shop in Contant with her husband, Michael, said of their customers.
“We’re overwhelmed trying to fix everyone’s front ends and alignments,” said Jozwiak. “My personal car is making noise, and we don’t even have time to fix it.”
“It’s really an issue on the island with some of these roads,” said Steve Gardner, who works in the office of the V.I. Taxi Association, which represents some 600 drivers and has its headquarters in Contant. “Whatever the average person is experiencing, the taxi drivers are experiencing,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s the quality of the asphalt or the terrain” that makes repairs difficult, said Gardner. “It’s really a concern.”
On top of millions of dollars in federally funded projects to fix the territory’s roads in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes, one of the most visible ventures has nothing to do with better roads at all.
An ongoing fiber optics cable project begun by AT&T in 2019 has left drivers straddling concrete-filled ruts that now snake through many of the islands’ roads.
While the telecom giant sold its wireless and wire-line operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to Liberty Latin America in a $1.95 billion deal finalized in November, the fiber optics cable work continues, performed by contractor Bermudez, Longo, Diaz-Masso, LLC of Puerto Rico.
“Specifically, the fiber optics underground construction began on Dec. 11, 2019, in St. John, on Feb. 3, 2020, in St. Thomas and on Feb. 5, 2020, in St. Croix,” said Victor Vera, director for Wireless RAN Engineering, Liberty Communications of Puerto Rico, LLC, via email. “It is being implemented in two phases, with all three islands being impacted simultaneously in both phases. In the project’s first phase, Liberty is already deploying approximately 60 miles of fiber optics throughout the USVI, which will deliver improved mobile service to 50 percent of sites throughout the islands. Phase 1 is scheduled to be completed by June 2021,” said Vera.
Phase 2 of the project will target the remaining 50 percent of the cell sites on all three islands and is in the government permits process, said Vera. “We are expected to start on, or before, June 2021 and to be completed by next year,” he added.
Vera said the aim of the project is to improve and increase Liberty’s cellular network reliability and improve and grow its cellular network transport capacity “toward our Mobile Telephone Switching Office. Our customers in the USVI will benefit from an improved cellular network that is more reliable, has an increased capacity and better cellular service overall.”
The V.I. Public Works Department is aware of the issues the project has created on St. Thomas roads and fixes are coming, said Public Communications Specialist Renee Exius.
“We have received complaints and are aware of the conditions. The concrete-filled trenches are temporary until permanent asphalt pavement restoration can be performed,” said Exius, in a recent email exchange.
“The permanent asphalt restoration is currently underway at various locations throughout St. Thomas. Residents can expect final surface restoration along north side roads in the coming weeks,” said Exius.
The private fiber optics project is just one of the hurdles drivers face as Public Works applies Federal Highway Administration dollars to road works that, when complete, will see new striping, new signage and an improved Nisky Center intersection, among numerous other projects. Those include the ongoing $15.3 million Main Street Enhancement, the $45 million Veterans Drive Improvement Project and $909,136 in Mafolie Road repairs that have led to closures of the heavily traveled north-south corridor for 30-minute intervals throughout the workday.
Meanwhile, road striping is continuing as funds allow, said Exius.
“The department currently has a road striping supply contract with Precise Builders – which allows DPW to assign locations once funding becomes available,” Exius said in a press release on Wednesday. “The areas completed within the last year include Veterans Drive, from Vendor’s Plaza to Windward Passage; Four Winds intersections; Four Winds to Tutu Park Mall intersection; and the Fort Mylner intersection. Donoe intersection and the Weymouth Rhymer intersections are next on the list; however, this is pending funding availability.”
Work also is ongoing at the Nisky intersection by contractor Island Roads as part of the $2,816,949 Crown Bay Improvement Project, said Exius. “The scope of work includes road reconstruction, asphalt milling, paving, manhole adjustments and roadway and parking lot striping. Temporary striping was laid through a task order; however, the main striping will occur after road reconstruction and the final asphalt wearing course is laid. The expected completion date is June 2021, however, we anticipate that this project will be completed sooner, barring any unforeseen delays,” she said.
Meanwhile, motorists likely have seen new traffic signs going up across the island, which is part of the $747,500 Emergency Relief District-Wide Signage Project, expected to be completed in April, said Exius.
The project is especially welcome as the territory reopens to tourism and more visitors take to the road, unfamiliar with St. Thomas’ streets and driving on the left – a concern underlined by a poster to the Public Works Department’s Facebook page.
“Please replace the stop sign and one-way sign south of Harbor View Hotel on St. Thomas,” wrote Renata Christian West. “Tourists are making a left down the one way. Very dangerous.”