No ‘Meaningful Progress’ at Airports Since the Storms, VIPA Board Say

VIPA board member Carol Jacobs says that there has been no ‘meaningful’ change in the conditions at the St. Thomas airport since the 2017 hurricanes.
VIPA board member Carol Jacobs says that there has been no ‘meaningful’ change in the conditions at the St. Thomas airport since the 2017 hurricanes.

Saying that there are “sensitive issues” surrounding the restoration of local airports and maintaining them, V.I. Port Authority board members still laid bare their concerns Friday about contractor Lemartec and the performance of the agency’s maintenance staff.

“There has been no meaningful progress at the airports since the storms,” acting Attorney General Carol Jacobs said candidly at Wednesday’s meeting on St. Thomas.

In a report delivered earlier in the meeting, VIPA’s acting Executive Director Damian Cartwright hit on both points by updating the board on progress made with Lemartec to roll out more manpower and resources, along with efforts to revamp the authority’s maintenance division and bring on new staff.

There’s been an ongoing challenge with Lemartec in getting the contractors they need to finish the projects they’re contracted for, Cartwright said. Even with job fairs and other initiatives, the company has had difficulty sourcing labor, a phenomenon that Cartwright said is being experienced territory-wide since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in 2017.

VIPA selected Lemartec as the construction manager at risk to oversee the restoration of a majority of the agency’s hurricane damaged facilities. Board members have expressed concerns over the company’s progress for months, but focused specifically Wednesday on progress made at the airports, including the restoration of roofs and improvements to the departure lounge at St. Thomas’ Cyril E. King Airport.

VIPA has had a general meeting with the company to explore opportunities to speed up the restoration process, Cartwright said Wednesday, and nailed down some deadlines. During the week of Feb. 25, the public should expect to see a “significant improvement in the rollout of manpower and resources” by the company, Cartwright added. Meanwhile, Cartwright said VIPA, on its own, has initiated the procurement process for some smaller projects but is suffering from the same issues as it did when it put the major restoration projects out to bid: a lack of qualified companies responding.

Board member Yvonne Thraen said, given that, it’s more efficient to work with Lemartec to see what the company can get done than adding to the timeline by putting the projects out to bid again and starting over with a new company.

Board member and Tourism Commissioner designee Joseph Boschulte countered that if the company isn’t performing, it’s time to draw the line. Speaking of comments from travelers he meets at the airports, Boschulte said, “VIPA is the steward of the airports and if the contractor is not executing, then VIPA has the responsibility to figure out what happens next.”

“It’s past the honeymoon period for Irma and Maria,” he added. “We had the time to get things fixed, but the time has come where we have to start seeing tangible results in these areas.”

Focusing on maintenance, Cartwright said VIPA is looking to reorganize its operations and transfer four or five staff members from the general maintenance pool. Per Federal Aviation Administration requirements, those staff members also need to be trained, but efforts are ongoing to address the issues.

“To have a solution just to have a solution and kick the can around doesn’t work,” board member Lee Steiner said after continued concerns were raised about the appearance of the Cyril King parking lot and bathrooms. “If this is what you feel will resolve this issue I’ll support it, but if it’s a solution where we’re going to have this discussion again in a few months I’d be disappointed. Now is the time to have an honest discussion about what it’s going to take to cure this major issue at the airport.”

Thraen and a few other board members pushed for the discussion to continue in executive session due to what they said were “sensitive issues” surrounding both maintenance and restoration.

Meanwhile, to help with staffing, the board approved Wednesday:

– The creation of a new construction management officer position to provide engineering oversight and monitor the construction schedules of VIPA’s projects,

– The creation of a civil engineer position on St. Croix,

– An incentive package to cover relocation expenses for new employees coming from abroad. The board said Wednesday that the package – $2,000 with a commitment to work for VIPA for a year – would help attract highly skilled applicants for hard to fill positions.