St. John Contractors “Hard Up” for Concrete

Unable to get concrete deliveries due to the lack of barges available, contractors across St. John are using on-site “cement mixers” while concrete trucks are stuck in St. Thomas.
St. John Tradewinds photo by Amy Roberts.

The interruption of regular barge service from St. Thomas to St. John is hitting St. John in a number of ways. Store managers can’t restock merchandise. Vacationers can’t get their rental cars back to the airport. Garbage is piling up in dumpsters.

But perhaps the most serious consequence is the effect on the construction industry. Deliveries of concrete manufactured on St. Thomas and trucked to St. John have ground to a halt since three out of the four barges that make the run have been out of service. Contractors estimate that between ten and 15 construction projects have been delayed, and layoffs are pending.

“It’s the talk of the town,” said one veteran contractor. “We’re strangled! None of us can deliver to a deadline.”

Contractors have been meeting with Kurt Nose, general manager and regional vice-president of Heavy Materials, the St. Thomas company that has supplied virtually all the ready-mixed concrete to the island for the past several years. St. John used to have two concrete manufacturers on island — Majestic Concrete and Centerline Concrete — but they ceased operations in the wake of the 2009 Recession.

“It’s unfortunate for everyone,” said Nose.

St. John customers represent a third of his company’s business and he has been seeking a solution to the problem, Nose explained.

“It’s just because of the lack of barge capacity,” he said. “We don’t see a short term solution.”

Fred Trayser of Trayser Construction said, “An awful lot of us are behind in concrete pours. We think we’re 1,000 yards short.”

A concrete truck can hold about 10 cubic yards of concrete, but trucks coming to St. John typically carry only eight yards because the concrete tends to spill as the trucks lumber up the steep terrain. A yard of concrete costs around $250 including delivery.

“Even when the barges were running, we had to schedule our deliveries three weeks in advance,” said one contractor, who has called for the reactivation of a concrete plant on St. John that’s been out of operation for several years.

Heavy Materials has the lease for that deactivated plant located in Susannaberg, but Nose said, “It’s far from being a quick solution. I don’t want to comment on that now.”

One possible solution, according to Trayser, is the acquisition of a mobile volumetric mini batching plant which could be based at the site of the former concrete plant.

“It’s a metered batch plant that brings consistent results,” said Trayser. “You can buy the materials and set up different size capacities.”

Trayser estimated that a volumetric plant could produce 300 to 400 yards of concrete a week.

“That would probably meet [the island’s] needs of 15,000 to 20,000 yards per year,” he said.

Nose said he has discussed that option with the contractors, but Heavy Materials has to “make sure it’s the right tool for the job. We don’t own any in the territory now.”

One contractor said the entire construction industry would benefit by having a concrete batching plant on St. John. A truck coming over by barge from St. Thomas can usually make only one round trip to St. John per day, he said, when it could typically make two or three deliveries on St. Thomas. Locating a plant on St. John would cut down on turn-around time as well as save everyone money in barging fees.

Dan Boyd, one of the builders who has been holding discussions with officials from Heavy Materials, said the company has the obligation to meet the needs of the St. John community.

“They rent out the old yard,” said Boyd. “They made a monopoly. They owe it to us.”

Heavy Materials was purchased last October by U.S. Concrete, the largest concrete manufacturer in the United States.

“We’re looking at the situation together,” Nose said.

Heavy Materials also has operations on St. Croix and regularly sends materials to islands in the Northern Caribbean by barge and tug. Asked if these barges could take over while the St. John barges were out of service, Nose explained that this wasn’t possible under current maritime law. These barges are not U.S. flagged and cannot operate directly between two U.S. ports.

Before the Recession, huge barges carrying sand and gravel used to arrive in the Creek in Cruz Bay, and truck drivers would often work through the night unloading and carrying materials to the concrete plants in Susannaberg.

Nose said he understands the frustrations of the St. John contractors and the effects on the St. John economy.

“We’re in the concrete delivery business, but not the transport business,” he said.

After meetings with contractors and officials from Love City Car Ferries, Nose thought he had found a solution. That barge company had agreed to add an early morning run to transport four concrete trucks on the Island Vic, the only operating barge currently certified for heavy equipment by the Coast Guard. (A fully loaded concrete truck weighs about 35 tons.)

That plan fell through July 20, the day before it was set to go into effect, when the Island Vic broke down. Repairs to its engines are expected to take another week.

The topic of bringing in another barge company for general transport was broached at a July 20 meeting of the Virgin Island Port Authority, but the proposal was met by staunch opposition from the three barge operators. Board member Jose Penn said a meeting will be held in two weeks to consider the issue.

Meanwhile, some contractors are buying their own materials and mixing concrete on their own.

“I poured 10 yards the day before yesterday,” said one contractor. “It’s 30 to 40 percent more expensive. I’ve got a small operation, so I can keep it going, but it’s beating my guys up.”

“They’re moving the concrete by bucket and wheelbarrow 40 feet away and 10 feet in the air,” he said. “It makes for a really tough day.”