Caye Caulker Airstrip, Somehow, It’ll HappenBut they're not lining up like that in Caye Caulker - and that's because that airstrip is closed for urgent repairs. But what money are they going to use to repair it? Last night we told you that the Social Security Board rejected a Belize Airports Authority loan application for the second time. That's after they trimmed down the requested amount from 7 million to 3.5 million. Well, today the Minister of Tourism told the media that they're going to find the funding one way or the other:...
Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism
"My final word is it will be a 3.5 million either Social Security or somebody else we have 2 backup plan should in case. It will be a 3.5 million dollars hot mix airport wide and lights also on the runway."
B.A.A. waits for funding for Caye Caulker airstrip; S.S.B. skeptical
The Caye Caulker Airstrip project, an initiative that was, to an extent, prompted by Tropic and Maya Island Air’s decision to suspend flights to the island because of a faulty runway, is in limbo tonight. That’s because the Belize Airports Authority was banking on a loan facility from the Social Security Board to conduct much needed repairs on the aerodrome. That loan application has pretty much fallen through, as SSB’s Board of Directors rejected a request for three and a half million dollars to undertake the project. While it may not be completely off the table, there are two strict conditions that BAA must meet in order to be granted approval. News Five’s Isani Cayetano has that story.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
Since local carriers suspended flights to Caye Caulker at the beginning of October, much has been said about the proposed aerodrome to be constructed on the island. In fact, the People’s United Party has been rather vocal in suggesting that the project may very well be just another hustle for government cronies. Criticism notwithstanding, the Belize Airports Authority is tonight in a pickle since the Social Security Board, its primary funding agency, has essentially turned down a loan application for three and a half million dollars. The fate of the initiative now hangs in the balance.
Nicholas Ruiz, General Manager, Belize Airports Authority
“Currently the discussions with SSB are still ongoing. They have a meeting on Thursday coming, they’re still onboard and is known, there was correspondence sent to that we needed to respond to certain conditions that they’ve put and we have done so for the record. So we just await their decision, a final decision on our application for Caye Caulker, to be able to say that we have the financing from SSB to be able to complete the works.”
That, however, depends on whether a revised application will be approved by the statutory body in the days ahead. According to Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, the project will be completed one way or another.
Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism & Civil Aviation
“My final word is [that] it will be at three point five million [dollars]. Either social security or somebody else will [finance it]. We have a backup plan, two backup plans should in case.”
“Should in case SSB does not approve.”
Manuel Heredia Jr.
“Yeah. It will be a three point five million dollar hot-mixed airport, wider and lights also on the runway.”
While government and BAA are prepared to forge ahead with the plan to reconstruct an aerodrome that conforms to International Civil Aviation Organization standards, the scale of the undertaking will be reduced considerably. The initial projection for the cost of the project was set at seven million Belize dollars.
“A lot has been said about that, initially, as I told you, the board had decided that we wanted a seven million dollar project inclusive of a terminal, fencing, elevated runway, widened runway, markings, lighting for nighttime capacity, flight capacity, and that was the ideal project that we wanted. As I explained to you, the BAA does not have terminal buildings at its aerodromes and that’s something that the board felt that they wanted to pursue. Our internal cash flow analysis done by a CPA, a certified public accountant and external auditor, confirmed that from our perspective that we could make the payments, hence we submitted that to the SSB.”
That submission, nonetheless, was not greeted with full endorsement by SSB’s Board of Directors, prompting the airports authority to revise its proposal by reducing the scope of the project considerably.
“Eventually we submitted, made an application for the five point five million for the runway works, most importantly. Again, there was a discussion centering on that to the degree that the BAA listened to what the SSB has to say, we discussed it at the board level and the last application that went to the SSB for a very, very solid project still, seeking to be ICAO compliant; still hot-mixed elevated runway, shoreline protection, lighting included, except for the fencing and the terminal. So we ended up at three point five [million dollars] with the BAA committing some of its funds and we felt that that was a solid application. As you know, the Investment Committee okayed it and sent it to the board, but the board had itself some conditions that they wanted for us to look at and, like I told you, we have sent that response and so we await their formal and final decision on Thursday.”
Work on the new aerodrome continues to be deferred until the BAA is able to secure funding for the project. According to General Manager Nick Ruiz, the timeline for completion once funding has been approved will be six to eight months.
Authority wants to get moving to minimize losses
The delay in commencing work on the Caye Caulker airstrip is having an impact on tourism on the island. As the fifth most trafficked runway in the country, it is safe to say that a significant loss in arrivals is being recorded. While Ruiz, admits that it may take some time to get the new aerodrome up and running, it is the first time that the problem of the undulating landing strip is being addressed at its core.
Nick Ruiz, General Manager, Belize Airports Authority
“In all of this, it is not lost upon me that the people of Caye Caulker who have been very supportive really, and we’ve talking with them, are inconvenienced. And not only them, Caye Caulker is our fifth most trafficked aerodromes in terms of landings and so we know it’s key to the development of the tourism and business sector, leisure sector. And so we want to get this runway back online, operational. Initially, with our civil engineer’s team of consultants, Anthony Thurton and Associates Ltd., we had been looking at a timeframe of six to eight months. Because of where we have been with the SSB and the time it has taken, obviously we’re going to try to shorten that as much as possible, while also ensuring the quality of work, of course, so that it’s open as soon as possible. If we can get it done in a shorter amount of time, rest assure that we will press for that because we know it’s important to the island and everybody that uses or flies into Caye Caulker and out of Caye Caulker. So I’d have to say that the six to eight months is to play it safe, but of course the commitment is to try to get it done in a lesser amount of time. The BAA has really tried to stay out of the back and forth out there, there’s a lot of speculation about the project and whatnot. I assure you that the BAA has been very committed to the project; we have a solid team of technical people that have been working on the project. As I’ve mentioned to you, the last time Caye Caulker was looked at was in 2006 and the fundamental problem of the base and the sub-base was not looked at. It was just a chip seal coat that was applied. In 2009, IDB came and said, look chip seal is great but really, international standards are demanding that you graduate to hot mix asphalt surfaces. And so from 2009 that recommendation had been made but it wasn’t really implemented at Caye Caulker and only recently have you seen that Sir Barry Bowen, as an example, has been, you know, elevated toa hot-mix surface.”
The Board of Directors of the Social Security Board meets next Thursday, however, there is no certainty that a resubmission from the Belize Airports Authority will make it on the agenda for that meeting.