Senate committee considers borrowing against future federal highway funds to fix St. Croix's roads


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ST. CROIX - The Senate Finance Committee today will take up the question of leveraging a portion of the territory's future Federal Highway Administration funds to help pay for immediate repairs to pothole-ridden roads on St. Croix.

The bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, has asked the public to show its support by coming to the hearing this morning at the Fritz Lawaetz Legislative Hall.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Senators Alicia Hansen, Judi Buckley and Diane Capehart from St. Croix and Clifford Graham and Shawn-Michael Malone from St. Thomas.

The legislation would authorize the V.I. government and the Public Works Department to apply for up to $75 million in Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, which are bonds or other securities issued when monies are anticipated in the future from a specific source, so that a particular need can be funded upfront, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

When it comes to fixing highways, Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles are backed by future federal highway funds. The territory could receive federal-aid reimbursement for a wide array of debt-related costs, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

"It's a good financial instrument to leverage a portion of the federal transportation funds we get," Rivera-O'Reilly said, adding that she wants any proceeds from that leveraging to go to St. Croix.

"The road conditions on St. Croix, the lack of jobs and the bad economy" all played in the decision to move forward with requesting that the proceeds go solely to St. Croix projects, she said.

Under the bill, any proceeds would be used to repair and pave all roads in the historic towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted; all major east-west arteries, including Queen Mary Highway and Melvin Evans Highway; Northside Road; and all north-south arteries.

Rivera-O'Reilly said she hopes the bill will create jobs on the island and increase the tax base while building and improving infrastructure.

"It gives people hope," she said.

The idea for the bill came from a concerned constituent, she said. She said that the territory has done this type of bonding before.

As for spending all the proceeds from the bonding on St. Croix, she pointed to the state of the economy on St. Croix since HOVENSA shuttered its refinery in early 2012 and how much larger St. Croix is compared with St. Thomas.

Likewise, she noted that only a portion of the highway funds would be leveraged.

"We are at a juncture where St. Croix needs to be the priority," she said, adding that she sees the move as an investment in developing St. Croix and its future economy.

Buckley said that she signed on as co-sponsor for obvious reasons.

"Our roads are in horrible shape," she said.

However, it was not clear on Monday whether the executive branch would support the bill.

Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls did not return calls to The Daily News on Monday, and Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. would not say what Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s position on the bill is.

"Administration officials will offer testimony at tomorrow's hearings," he said in a written response to a Daily News inquiry.

However, Buckley and Rivera-O'Reilly said they have been told that the administration is opposed to the bill and has its own projects it wants to put a priority on, including some on St. Thomas.

"I understand the administration wants to use the money for other purposes," Rivera-O'Reilly said. "But the Legislature has to approve all borrowing. I believe my colleagues will be able to see that St. Croix has greater needs right now."

Rivera-O'Reilly also said she hopes it doesn't come down to a power play between islands.

"I just hope that this doesn't become a battle between districts, that it becomes more a collaborative effort to shore up St. Croix," she said.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today on St. Croix.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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