House approves airport project after marathon debate

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HAMILTON, Bermuda, Feb 11, CMC  — The opposition Progressive Labour Party (PLP) has urged the public to flood senators with their concerns after the House of Assembly early on Saturday approved legislation paving the way for government’s controversial airport redevelopment project,
Despite vociferous opposition from the PLP, after almost 14 hours of debate,  the Airport Authority Act 2017, was passed by 18 votes to 16.
MPs voted along party lines with independent MP Shawn Crockwell, a former One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) Tourism and Transport Minister, supporting the bill.
Legislators went on to consider a second piece of legislation, the Airport Redevelopment Concession Act 2017, which was also approved early Saturday morning.
An expected protest outside the House of Assembly building against the airport plan failed to materialise on Friday morning.
The ruling OBA  announced in late 2014 it had agreed a 30-year public-private partnership (PPP) deal with the Canadian government through Canadian Commercial Corporation and Aecon, the Canadian contractor, to build a new airport terminal with a then estimated price tag of US$250 million.
The two political parties have been engaged in a bitter wrangle over its pros and cons ever since.
The OBA has repeatedly said its PPP deal with Aecon will give the island a desperately needed new airport without adding to its debt, while the PLP has aggressively attacked the move as privatisation, saying it will see airport revenues disappear overseas, and touting renovations as an alternative.
At the time, Finance Minister Bob Richards said Bermuda needed a new terminal — the current one leaks during storms — at the L.F. Wade International Airport but could not afford one because of the island’s unhealthy financial position, hence the decision to go for the PPP deal.
Opposition Leader David Burt said in a statement on Saturday “we are disappointed, yet not surprised, that the OBA government acted against the best interests of Bermudians by voting to privatise our airport for 30 years.
“This deal will send $2.4 billion of revenue to a Canadian company, while Bermudian taxpayers are burdened with a $586 million bill. This deal has been marked with questions and controversy from the very start.
“The Senate now has a chance to weigh in and vote against the OBA’s airport privatisation bill that will weaken the country’s finances,” Burt said, adding “we urge all Bermudians opposed to the transfer of $2.4 billion in tax revenue to a Canadian company to contact senators to encourage them to bring a pause to the privatisation of our airport.”
The heated debate in the House came after Bermuda Industrial Union President Chris Furbert had opted to send union members back to work when only 150 to 200 showed up on Friday morning at Union Square.
Disappointed by the turnout, Furbert declared that it was impossible to ask “the minority to carry the majority forward”.
On December 2, more than 1,000 demonstrators prevented legislators from entering the House of Assembly to debate the airport plan and police in riot gear used pepper spray in a bid to disperse the crowd. House Speaker Randy Horton adjourned proceedings until this month.
Finance Minister Richards told the House on Friday that the airport project would cost $302 million and take 40 months to complete.
He said Bermudians and local firms would be given priority when it came to jobs created by the project.
“More information, over 1,000 pages, has been disclosed to the public in this project than any other project in the history of Bermuda,” he said.
Pointing to the findings of an independent panel, which this week described the deal as “commercially sound”, Richards concluded: “This transaction represents the best way forward given the atrocious hand left to us by the former government.”
The OBA inherited a national debt of $1.4 billion after it ousted the PLP in the December 2012 general election. The debt has grown to $2.4 billion.
An opinion poll commissioned by the Royal Gazette newspaper, and published on Friday, showed that almost two-thirds of Bermuda voters approved the airport plan.
The 11-member Upper House — made up of five senators from the OBA, three from the PLP and three independent members — is due to meet again on Monday  but is unlikely to discuss the airport plan because it has a raft of other legislation to deal with after being put on hold following the House disruption in early December.

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