Main Street legal fight worrying downtown merchants


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ST. THOMAS - The legal battle going on in the territory's high court may delay a federally funded project to rehabilitate Main Street in downtown Charlotte Amalie.

The Main Street Enhancement Project is managed by the Public Works Department, which, in conjunction with the V.I. Water and Power Authority's downtown Hazard Mitigation Project, will widen and beautify Main Street from Post Office Square to the Enid Baa Library by placing above-ground power lines underground.

The project will place palm trees in groups of four along the street, with areas for seating and attractive light fixtures. Blue biche sidewalks will replace the concrete, and bollards will separate vehicular traffic from foot traffic.

The project's timeline was to run from May to November of this year.

While Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls is hopeful the project can stay on track, work cannot commence until a legal dispute between a contractor and the government is resolved.

When the project was put out to bid last fall, two bidders responded. Island Roads bid $10.4 million and Tip Top Construction bid $8.6 million.

In November, the project was awarded to the higher bidder, Island Roads, and Tip Top filed a lawsuit in V.I. Superior Court.

The project is funded by the Federal Highway Administration.

Tip Top Construction President Joe Hollins said the V.I. government is misinterpreting federal procurement guidelines.

Hollins said because the project is already designed, and the contract is solely for the purpose of construction, the only thing that can be taken into account in selecting a bid is the dollar figure.

In December, the V.I. Superior Court ruled in favor of the government, and Hollins appealed to the V.I. Supreme Court.

The appellate court ruled last month that it would expedite the process, but that it would fully adjudicate the appeal. In the meantime, a restraining order is in place, preventing the government from breaking ground on the project.

Tip Top filed a brief in Supreme Court last week, and the government has two weeks to file a brief in response. A hearing will likely be scheduled for early April.

The St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Revitalization Inc. issued a statement last week expressing concern about the lawsuit and the potential project delays.

"While it is understood that the bidding process must be in accordance with law, it is deeply troubling and frustrating that the commencement of this much needed project may be delayed. Any delays will not only cripple our vitally important tourist economy, but it also sends a confusing signal to our residents, property owners, and tourism partners who are expecting our community to invest in revitalization of our downtown area," Downtown Revitalization Inc. President David Bornn wrote.

Smalls said he understands the economic benefit the project will bring to the Main Street merchants and the territory as a whole.

"And we hope to have the matter resolved before the anticipated start date in May," he said.

The funding for the project is in place, comprising a combination of federal and local funds, according to Smalls.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also awarded a grant to replace sewer lines in the area while the road is under construction.

Smalls said the work will all be done at night, and should not impact daytime commerce on Main Street.

Each night the work site will be cleaned up and metal plates will cover any gaps in the road, Smalls said. Main Street will not be blocked off to traffic or shoppers at any point during the one-year project, he said.

Hollins said he also understands the impact the project will have on the territory, but he believes that clarifying the procurement guidelines for the territory's capital projects will help everyone in the long run.

"We're not attacking the government, we're trying to better the system for all Virgin Islanders so that everybody has the same and equal representation and opportunity," Hollins said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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