By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday said he will be "smiling from ear to ear" if his wish for a $500m capital works budget to improve decaying infrastructure and boost the economy is granted.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business that the collapse of the bridge linking Spanish Wells and Russell Island was "a stark warning" about the decaying state of many of The Bahamas' key infrastructure assets.
Arguing that successive administrations have left the likes of roads, bridges and docks in "an untenable position", Mr Bannister said the Government need to initiate major capital works "in each of the Family Islands" as well as New Providence to both upgrade its infrastructure and stimulate jobs and economic activity post-COVID-19.
He added that the pandemic's effects were "so frightening" for an import and tourism-dependent nation such as the Bahamas, given both the health and economic fall-out that has hit every citizen and resident. The minister said COVID-19's impact on the US, which is the world leader for both deaths and infections (the latter over 1m), was especially troubling given that the country is the source market for 85 percent of this nation's tourists.
How quickly The Bahamas fully opens it borders to international travellers will depend greatly on whether the likes of the US, Canada, the UK and Europe - all of which are struggling with COVID-19 - are able to bring the outbreak under control.
In the meantime, Mr Bannister said Ministry of Works engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and other personnel are racing to complete as "many scopes of work as possible" in the next few weeks in the hope these can all make it into the capital works package being negotiated with the Ministry of Finance.
Asked how large a capital expenditure budget his ministry would like, Mr Bannister replied: "I wish I could have $1bn to stimulate the economy, but that isn't going to happen. We need to ensure that there's a stimulus in place for capital expenditure as much as possible, we really do. I don't control that; I don't have any say over that......
"If we go to half a billion dollars that would be the kind of figure that would make me smile. If we get $500m I would be smiling from ear to ear."
Capital works and infrastructure projects are among the areas the Government is focusing on to prop up the Bahamian economy, and create some employment and consumer demand, amid the plunge in private sector activity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
They represent a traditional stimulus measure when private consumption and investment are low, yet it is unclear just how much funding will be made available to the Ministry of Works for capital projects given that K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, recently told this newspaper that the Government's revenues were down 50 percent in March with a more significant fall anticipated for April.
The Ministry of Finance's practice in recent years has been to trim the Government's capital expenditure Budget as a means to keep its overall fiscal deficit low, which has potentially starved essential infrastructure upgrades of much-needed capital.
Mr Bannister yesterday said his ministry received some $193m for infrastructure and capital works during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which is comfortably less than half the $500m target desired for the upcoming budget.
"In order to do the things to stimulate the economy, we need a lot more money," he added. "We have to put people to work. There are many, many people in our country that have the skills to do things in various communities.
"We have an aging infrastructure all over the country. You saw the collapse of the old Spanish Wells-Russell Island bridge today - a 28 year-old bridge sitting there amid the process of finishing a brand new one. We have infrastructure like that throughout the entire country.
"We could put people to work on every island improving infrastructure. We could improve our tourism product hugely, but the reality is we have to have funding to do it, and there has to be appreciation that any expenditure brings back returns," Mr Bannister continued.
"The Government has a responsibility to the people, and we cannot fail that responsibility. We need to act in accordance with proven formulas, what has been proven to simulate the economy in the past. What we have to do is create projects in each of the Family Islands and New Providence. We have lots of old infrastructure everywhere"
The minister described the Spanish Wells- Russell Island bridge collapse as "a stark warning in that we have left a lot of this infrastructure in an untenable position for years". The accident had created a greater "appreciation of urgency" among all stakeholders for the situation to be resolved.
Waugh Construction was awarded the contract to build a new bridge in July 2019, and Mr Bannister said the company "appreciates the seriousness of the challenge" after he spoke to its principal yesterday.
Acknowledging that Waugh Construction had suffered equipment loss and damage when Hurricane Dorian hit its Freeport headquarters last year, Mr Bannister said the replacement bridge was already on Spanish Wells - albeit in nine containers - and now has to be assembled and put together.
"The old bridge has to be taken down so the new one can be put up," he added. "There are severe challenges. In order to take the old one down there must be some method of providing transport across the water. The contractor has ordered a barge from Louisiana, and that barge should be here in a week. Once that is here, they will be able to take the old one down and erect the new bridge in a matter of weeks.
"I have to choose my words carefully, but if any bridge had to fail to some extent it was better that it was Spanish Wells than any other. We have a bridge at Fresh Creek in Andros that is very dangerous and needs to be replaced. We have the Glass Window bridge that could pose serious problems. We have two bridges in Andros that we are starting to build now. We have a bridge in Exuma that needs to be replaced."
Mr Bannister said the same applied to multiple Family Island docks and "hundreds of miles of road" throughout the length and breadth of The Bahamas. Upgrading such infrastructure, he argued, could also spur Bahamian and international investors to invest in these islands and "make a huge difference in getting out of the recession".