Viya Asks Senate to Revisit Vetoed ‘Dig Once Bill’

Viya CEO Geraldine Pitt, left, shakes hands with Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) at Thurday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Viya CEO Geraldine Pitt, left, shakes hands with Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) at Thurday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

Viya Chief Executive Officer Geraldine Pitt called on lawmakers Thursday to revisit former Sen. Nellie O’Reilly’s “Dig Once” legislation, calling it a critical component in ensuring the resilience of essential infrastructures, including Viya’s network.

Pitt made the remarks while giving the Senate Committee on Housing and Infrastructure, chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden an update of the company’s operations.

“‘Dig Once’ is good policy at the federal level. It is good policy at the state and local level. It is good policy in the USVI and critical to resilience in the face of future natural disasters,” Pitt said.

Pitt said the “Dig Once” legislation should be uncontroversial, alluding to contentious debates in chambers as the bill made its way through the Senate during the 32nd Legislature. The legislation would have mandated any government entity digging to install underground conduits to either make sure the conduit is large enough to accommodate multiple communications providers or allow a communications provider to install its own conduit at the same time. The goal was to minimize disruption caused to traffic and businesses, and damage to infrastructure by reducing the need to tear up roads.

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The 32nd Legislature approved the measure but former Gov. Kenneth Mapp vetoed the legislation. According to Mapp, the territory might have to pay back some $90 million in federal funds for the construction of the assets of the V.I. Next Generation Network, a government-owned fiber-optic network also opposed to the “Dig Once” legislation. According to Mapp, the $90 million federal grant has terms and conditions attached to it, along with V.I. a government bond issue of $35 million, and signing the legislation then “would effectively relinquish viNGN’s metropolitan network to commercial ISPs,” allowing them access into viNGN’s middle-mile network conduit, Mapp said.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration BroadbandUSA Organization guides the terms and conditions of the $90 million federal grant.

WAPA CEO Lawrence Kupfer testifies Thursday before the Senate Committee on Infrastructure and Housing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
WAPA CEO Lawrence Kupfer testifies Thursday before the Senate Committee on Infrastructure and Housing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

Lawrence Kupfer, chief executive officer of the V.I. Water and Power Authority, told lawmakers on Thursday that WAPA is not opposed to the “dig once” legislation. Kupfer, however, said the authority would rather give private companies the ability to lease WAPA’s spare conduits, funded by federal hazard mitigation funds, after the conduits have been completed, instead of being mandated to build conduits large enough for named entities such as Viya, without the assurance that such companies will actually lease them.

“FEMA approves projects, we send them a cross-section of the plans … and it shows how many power conduits are there, how many communication conduits are there. They approve that both from an expenditures standpoint and from an environmental standpoint, and you can’t change it. So if they build something different, they come back, they say, ‘That’s a nice duct bank, but we’re not going to pay for that,’” Kupfer said.

Pitt, who took the helm at Viya late in the “dig once” debate and right before Mapp’s veto, said there needs to be clarity on the issue.

“At the end of the day, the onus is to make sure we have a clear understanding in the interest of the people of the Virgin Islands, what is possible, what is legal, what is prohibited,” she said.

Pitt also pointed out that apart from the failed “dig once” legislation, local “call before you dig” statutes also exist, but the Department of Public Works has not launched an official notification center that would notify stakeholders of all excavations and demolitions near underground facilities.

“Another set-back to the restoration progress was service-affecting fiber cuts that occurred as other contractors planted poles and excavated locations all over the territory,” Pitt said. “As a result of this lack of coordination, facilities that were restored were often then interrupted for critical locations such as radio stations and even public safety. Precious resources and materials were required to re-establish service to customers who were recently restored, seriously impeding progress.”

WAPA officials told lawmakers that some coordination exists when it comes to large projects, but in simpler tasks like fixing pipe breaks, WAPA crews go in and make needed fixes because they are familiar with the area.

Lawmakers made no promises Thursday that the “dig once” legislation will be reintroduced, but a few expressed that legal clarity is needed.

WAPA Updates
Kupfer also updated lawmakers on the status of the water outage that affected the entire western half of St. Croix, including all of Frederiksted. According to Kupfer, water services have been normalized after the Kingshill tank capacity dipped beneath the six to seven feet needed to keep up with demand. WAPA brought five new pumps and, after almost two weeks of water outage and low pressure issues, has gotten service back to residents.

While some households or businesses may experience discolored or muddy water from the tap, WAPA will flush certain portions of the system to address the issue, according to Kupfer.

On St. Croix, WAPA officials said problems with the lighting along the Melvin Evans Highway will undergo assessment in the next few weeks. The lights are fed by underground lines, according to WAPA, and the circuits may have been compromised by past incidents of copper thefts.

Kupfer said WAPA is currently in the process of starting 20 megawatts worth of rented generating units on St. Croix. On St. Thomas, three rented Wartsilla generating units are also in the process of starting and will soon go into testing phase. Kupfer said he hopes both sets of generators, which are propane-fed and more efficient, would go into commercial production by April.

Recently, WAPA also contracted for four new Wartsilla engines for St. Thomas, totaling 36 megawatts. The new Wartsilla engines, projected to save ratepayers roughly $0.06 per kilowatt hour, would eliminate the need for the rental generating units and could save ratepayers another $0.03 per kilowatt hour. These engines can be installed in 300 days, and may go into operation before the end of 2020.