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Lorna Smith: Airport project may not happen tomorrow

Lorna Smith. GIS photo

Lorna Smith. GIS photo

While making it clear that she was not speaking in her capacity as the wife of Premier Dr D Orlando Smith, Lorna Smith last evening defended the government’s plan to expand the runway at Terrence B Lettsome International Airport, but she wondered if it will be done before the next five years.

She also agrees with a suggestion that ‘the powers that be’ should further explain the proposed expansion to members of the community.

“If we are going to move to the next level in investment, if we are going to increase our government contributions, if we’re going to increase employment – whatever it is with the next level, it has to be with an international airport. And, again, I say it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”

“A point that was made in the House [of Assembly] was that no contract has been signed; there is a preferred bidder. So, we’re talking about five years before we are going to get an [expanded] airport,” Mrs Smith told an audience at the H Lavity Stoutt Community College last evening, March 15.

According to her, a number of persons internationally have been clamouring for the airport upgrade.

Mrs Smith, who is also Interim Executive Director of BVI Finance, explained: “I work with financial services and I had one [person] in my office today (Wednesday) from Switzerland. He wants an airport. We had three from China…they want to see an airport. Everybody wants to see an airport.”

“Every country in the Caribbean that relies on tourism has an international airport. And when I say international airport, I mean an airport that will take long-haul traffic… Every country has an airport. It’s important; it’s critical,” added Mrs Smith.

Bad experiences

She, in the meantime, noted bad experiences she has had while using the current means of traveling from major international markets, through regional airports, in order to reach the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

If the airport runway is extended, much larger planes would be able to offer direct services between BVI and major international markets such as the United States and Europe.

That would cost less and also be more time effective than the current arrangements, Mrs Smith suggested.

“It costs us at least $100 more per person to go through St Thomas [in the US Virgin Islands in order to reach the BVI]. The experience is horrible. From the time you hit the ferry [in St Thomas after leaving the airport there], it takes you hours [to reach the BVI via ferry]. And coming the other way, it is just as bad. It is not the experience we want to give the people who are coming to the BVI,” Mrs Smith explained.

She continued: “You land from a very pleasant experience in Europe and you have to wait five or six hours for LIAT [airline in Antigua in order to reach the BVI]. It’s a hot box, and you wonder if you are gonna get home. It has taken people 48 hours – people who are coming to do business in the BVI – to get from Antigua to Tortola [in the BVI]. Furthermore, those airports are not ours; we need to have our own airport.”

Mrs Smith made the comments during the finals of the Inter-Secondary Schools’ Debate last night, when St Georges Secondary School successfully proposed the moot: ‘The expansion of the Terrence B Lettsome International Airport will positively impact the overall economy of the BVI. They defeated the opposing finalists from Claudia Creque Educational Centre.

Meanwhile, Premier Smith has been facing opposition even within his government as he maintains that extension of the airport runway is needed now to address airlift issues, as well as to facilitate improvements in the local economy.

While lawmakers from both the government and parliamentary opposition agree that the runway should be extended, some have questioned whether the BVI is able to afford the project at this time. They noted that more pressing issues should be addressed, adding that there are also international threats facing the territory’s main revenue earner – financial services.

The government has selected China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) as the preferred bidder on the proposed runway expansion project.

CCCC has promised to undertake the work within a proposed budget of $153,432,572.

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