The Government has attempted to reassure Vincentians that the EC$700 million international airport at Argyle, the nation’s first, will be completed by the end of this year, six years after work began.
But the Opposition New Democratic Party is casting doubts on the prediction, with Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace questioning the nation’s capacity to spend an estimated EC$250 million on capital projects this year.
Delivering his Budget Address in Parliament last week, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told lawmakers and media audiences that the airport is “on target for completion by the end of 2014”.
However, in his response to the Budget, Eustace pointed to the level of disbursement, rather than the scale of works or the availability of funds, as he attempted to cast doubts on the Prime Minister’s prediction.
“This level of disbursement, which I anticipate can exceed 250 million dollars, if everything was to go as planned, will not be achieved,” said Eustace, a former prime minister and finance secretary.
“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],” Eustace further said.
“I, therefore, have grave doubt about our ability to complete the airport in 2014,” he told Parliament.
When completed, the airport, which is located on St. Vincent’s east coast, will have a runway 9,000 feet (2,743 metres) long and 150 feet (45 metres) 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 and from the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America, Gonsalves said.
However, inspite of its potential to transform the Vincentian economy, the international airport, has been a divisive project since in August 2005, when Gonsalves outlined his plan to build it.
Most persons’ position on the project is largely informed by their politics, even as some persons say they support the aspiration but have concerns about the failure of Government to sell the project to the population, the financing, and other issues.
The airport was a central plank of the general elections campaigns of 2005 and 2010 and will be a major campaign issue in the next general elections, constitutionally due in 2015.
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 Unity Labour Party government, which is vying for a fourth consecutive term in office, will understandably claim credit.
If it is yet to be completed, the Government will again point to the tough economic times or other challenges and urge voters to stick with the project.
The opposition New Democratic Party, which says that the project has progressed too far and must be completed, is expected to flip the Government’s arguments on the head.
On Dec. 30, 2013, 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.
But despite the completion of the terminal building and the attempts by the Government to reassure, it is blatantly clear that there is much work to be done before fixed-wing aircraft can land at the airport.
And even as the Government has erected billboard to show the progress made over the years, the Opposition, and some citizens alike, have raised questions about whether these works can be completed within a year.
The terminal building, one of the clearest sings of progress at the airport, is merely the shell for what it is intended to be, and needs a further six months to be outfitted with the necessary paraphernalia.
Last week, Gonsalves updated Parliament on the scope of work still to be completed.
At Dec. 31, 2013, 89 per cent of the earthworks were completed and sea defence works, which began on Aug. 12, 2013, will 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.
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, Gonsalves told Parliament.
The installation of the lighting equipment will be done during the first quarter of this year. 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 is in conversation with relevant private operators for the financing, construction, and operation of a fixed based operation and several aircraft hangars.
Work should begin imminently on these, Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves further told lawmakers that the other aspects of the airport’s construction are well in hand, namely, the terminal building access road, the Argyle gardens access road, and the Rawacou-Mt. Pleasant Access Road, the landscaping, environmental management, and the relocation of the petroglyphs.
In 2005, the estimated cost of the airport was EC$480.6 million (US$178 million). After the final designs for the airfield in December 2007, the cost was revised to EC$589 million (US$216 million) in late 2008.
That number has been revised upwards to approximately EC$700 million (US$260 million), due mainly to the higher cost of constructing the terminal building and other landside facilities, additional lands for landside facilities, increased earth and site works, and general cost escalation, Gonsalves said.
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, who is also Minister of Finance, told Parliament during his Budget Speech.
He further said that it is expected that some of the international airlines will enter into service agreements in 2014 with the Government to operate out of the Argyle International Airport.
But Eustace in his response noted that in 2013 the Government borrowed an additional EC$158 million for the project, and added that with the airport expected to be finished, lawmakers will expect that the money will be disbursed.
The Opposition Leader noted that the disbursements of this EC$158 million will have to be done at the same time that the country is recovering from the Christmas Eve floods, which left EC$330 million in loss and damage, in addition to other projects in the 2014 Estimates, including those in economic affairs.
This level of disbursement “will not be achieved”, Eustace said, noting that disbursements in the past have not exceeded EC$100 million in a single year.
Disbursements in the 2014 Estimates including the sale of land on the southern Grenadine island of Canouan, is projected at EC$97 million, he pointed out.
He further noted that disbursements for 2013, up to September, did not reach EC$70 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 said.
But, according to Chief Executive Officer of the IADC, Rudy Matthias, the country could have its international airport as early as July this year.
Speaking in mid-December, he said: “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 next year, 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.”