Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has predicted that a deal for new cruise piers will be signed before the next election, with the total cost coming in at less than $200 million – even after the design has been altered to reduce the environmental damage.

Government commissioned another study on the current incarnation of the pier project, which has been slowly working its way through the research and planning process since 2013.

Dutch firm Royal HaskoningDHV has been commissioned, after an open tender process, to perform civil engineering work which will help determine the final cost of the facility, after modifying the original design to cause less damage to coral reef habitat in George Town harbor.

Asked if there was a maximum total cost beyond which the project would cease to be viable, Mr. Kirkconnell said, “I’ve seen people write $300 million. I don’t know where they get $300 million from. What we have always seen and heard and talked about was $150 million, which was in the business case.

“We would expect, as they look into deeper water, there will be a percentage of change. I think the number is going to come back at $150 [million] to $200 million.”

He said the Royal Haskoning study, expected to be completed by the end of September, would determine more specifically the likely cost of the piers.

At that point, government still has to finalize negotiations with the cruise lines that will use the dock, including the issue of passenger guarantees needed to assure an ongoing revenue stream. The next step would be an open tender for the final design and construction of the piers, subject to Foreign and Commonwealth scrutiny of the preferred financing model.

One of the funding models outlined in the business case for the port was for the per-passenger fee, currently paid to tender operators, to be paid as a docking fee. However, it is questionable whether this would create enough revenue to make the project viable, and negotiations are likely to center on how the shortfall is funded without impacting net tax revenues at the port.

Despite the tight timeline and the complexity of the negotiations still to take place, Mr. Kirkconnell said he was confident it would be done before the country goes to the polls in May 2017.

“We would expect to have this signed before the next election. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be working to do it,” he said, adding that the government would not let the looming election date impact its decision making.

“We won’t get to a point where we are six months out from an election and the information says it is needed and good for the country that we won’t do it because of an election. That would be a shortcoming from a politician’s view.”

He said there have been no new discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, though negotiations with the cruise lines are ongoing. “Our goal is to arrive at a formula in partnership with cruise lines that will not only fund construction of the piers, but will ensure that they are owned by the people of the Cayman Islands.”

For the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he said, the priority is that there would be no liability to the Cayman Islands government or to the people.