Roads a major feature of upcoming budget

Premier Alden McLaughlin said traffic congestion is the 'number one concern' for constituents east of George Town. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Major investment in Cayman’s “creaking” road network will be among the key commitments when government reveals its spending plans for the next two years on Friday.

The expansion of the East-West Arterial highway from Savannah to Bodden Town will be one of a number of initiatives in a budget that includes “significant amounts of money for roadworks”, according to Premier Alden McLaughlin.

The premier also confirmed that the National Roads Authority would be required to commission an environmental impact assessment for the bulk of that project.

Speaking ahead of his final budget address as leader of the country, McLaughlin said a priority for his unity government as it enters its last 18 months was to make significant progress on key capital projects.

These include:

• Completing the construction of John Gray High School in time for opening in September 2021;

• Completing the new residential mental health facility;

• Progressing the new waste-management partnership with Dart and beginning work on the waste-to-energy facility;

• Progressing the cruise berthing facility if it is approved through referendum.

He said the budget would include no new fees and no new borrowing, and all capital projects would be funded through general revenues or through agreements with private sector partners.

“We are an in an incredibly strong financial position,” he added, pointing to a reduction in government debt from nearly $600 million at the start of his first term to just over $400 million today. During that time, he said, Caymanian unemployment had more than halved, and is now less than 5%.

He acknowledged that the improvement in the economy was driven, in part, by immigration and by development. He said Cayman’s population had grown by 12,000 since 2013.

“The increase in economic activity has created a situation where the infrastructure in some areas, particularly the road network, is creaking,” he said.

Despite the cruise port dominating headlines and talk shows, he said traffic was the “number one concern” of residents living east of George Town. He said the budget would seek to address this issue.

“The short-term fix has to be build more roads and improve the road network but that can’t be the medium- or long-term fix; we have to come up swiftly with a strategy to deal with Cayman’s transport needs,” he said.

The premier believes some of the proposed solutions, including calls for a ban on work permit holders owning vehicles, are “not sensible”. He said public transport has to improve first.

“Unless you have an alternative means for people to get around, how do you expect your labour force to work?”

Bus system ‘inadequate’

He said the current bus system is “inadequate” and an overhaul is needed.

“This budget will provide for a transportation study to provide the government with options to address this,” he said.

McLaughlin, who cannot run for premier again in 2021, having served two terms, acknowledged he may not be around to see that plan come to fruition. He said addressing the island’s public transport needs was a “huge undertaking” that would likely involve a public-private partnership and take several years to implement.

In the short term, he said, the plan would have to focus on roads.

Work is planned on ‘pinch points’ around George Town, including the Hurley’s roundabout, while a new paver is being purchased for the NRA to speed up progress on road development.

The planned extension to the East-West Arterial is expected to provide another outlet for a slew of new housing developments between Savannah and Bodden Town, easing the pressure on Shamrock Road.

Though he has previously highlighted concerns about the environmental impact assessment process, McLaughlin indicated the NRA would be obliged to comply with the National Conservation Council’s directive that an EIA will be required on this project.

He said a hydrological survey would also be needed, saying, “We have to assure ourselves and plan for issues including stormwater runoff and those sorts of things.”

The premier said the council had given indications that an EIA may not be needed for the first mile-long stretch, which will take the highway from its current terminus at Hirst Road as far as Woodland Drive.

He said he was hopeful that aspect of the project could proceed while the “reports are done for the more ecologically sensitive land east of Woodland Drive”.