by Gemma Handy
Antigua’s long bemoaned highways – peppered with potholes and patch-ups – will be transformed to international standards within 12 months.
That was the ambitious pledge yesterday from Works Minister Lennox Weston who spoke to Observer about the progress of the national road rehabilitation scheme.
Weston admitted government had faced a “Herculean task” when the project began in 2017, due to a staggering “90 percent” of the island’s roads being in a dire state.
“The highways were really horrible; we had not had a highway rebuilt in Antigua for close to 30 years. People were living in communities for 20, 30 years, walking on marl and on dirt,” he told Wednesday’s Observer AM radio show.
Weston said contractors were moving steadily across the island with about 60 percent of the roads slated for a revamp completed to date.
“We are quite happy with the progress. We secured financing for all the major highways – except All Saints Road which was our best road at that time – and we are moving from community to community, not doing a little patch here or there, but transforming total communities,” he explained.
“We believe within the next 12 months the highways will be of an international standard.
“After we complete the village roads, there are several brand new highways we need to build and that’s what we are going to work on for the next year.”
But Minister Weston had harsh words for contractors Bahamas Hot Mix which carried out the revitalisation of Friars Hill Road and Sir George Walter Highway – works which were beset by delays causing misery for motorists and business owners alike. Traders told Observer last year of losses topping 70 percent due to customers avoiding the area on account of the traffic jams and thick dust.
Weston said government remained locked in arbitration with the Nassau-based firm over the provision of drainage.
“We were unhappy about their mode of work and how they delayed the project significantly,” Weston continued.
“There’s a warranty on the roads so if any major fault shows up within a certain timeframe then they’re contractually obligated to correct it.
“Overall the paving went well; the drainage is really what we are fighting over. Their mode of operation, the delays and their legal tactics left a lot to be desired.”
Bahamas Hot Mix was contacted for comment but did not respond up to news time.
The minister said the scheme had also seen the establishment of a highways quality control department for the first time.
“We set up a quality control lab where everything is tested, graded and must meet international specifications, for example, the absorption rate of stone,” he explained.
“All those technical things are measured and tested; the oil we use and the mix have to be up to standard.
“In the past we never had any of those things – we just did superficial corrections.”
Weston said the country now had a “battery of well-qualified engineers”.
“I think you will see that there will be a transformation in the quality of roads; the base work should last about 20 years. We are going to see world quality roads being produced,” he asserted.
Meanwhile, the minister said repairs to Little Creek Bridge – badly damaged during last November’s torrential rains – would be “completed in short order”.
“There were some subcontractors who were going a little slowly. We have asked them to speed up and they’re doing a wonderful job to build a major, major bridge there,” Weston said.
Work is now poised to start on Cades Bay Bridge, which was also destroyed by the downpours.
“People don’t understand that when a bridge has to be replaced, it’s not simply going and pouring concrete; you have to do a lot of hydrological studies, a lot of drainage studies, and the bridge must be designed with a lot of detailed engineering,” he added.
“It does take some time for the design to be approved – and thereafter the construction.”
The first phase of the national road rehabilitation programme was made possible via a £13.9 million (US$19.3 million) grant from the United Kingdom Caribbean Infrastructure Partnership Fund (UKCIF).
It paid for an overhaul to 8.7km of principle arteries – Sir George Walter Highway and Friars Hill Road – said to be used daily by 75 percent of the population. Approval for the grant was given in December 2016 with the aim of boosting commercial and economic activity in the country.
The second phase of the project was financed by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) with more than 13km of roads currently being revamped. Those works were previously estimated to cost US$65.6 million – with US$45.9 million made available via a CDB loan and the remainder put forward by the government.