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Commission of Inquiry into the Airport Project

We need answers

Newsday Editorial, Sept 22, 2002

Thursday's testimony at the Commission of Inquiry into the Piarco Airport Development Project was significant and interesting, raising as it did disturbing questions that must be answered.

A Canadian firm, Scott Associates Inc, bid on the basis of a Build Operate and Transfer (BOT), which was rejected. Had this proposal been accepted by the Airport Authority, the project would not have cost the country any money.

The witness, David Scott of Scott Associates Architect Incorporated, testified that although his firm had done extensive work on the then proposed project for the Airports Authority during the period 1990 to January 1996, he was told in January 1996 that because of the 1995 change in Government the project had to be reviewed. This, he would later discover, would mean his company was being shunted aside.

Scott, in his evidence, stated that up until January 18, 1996 he had been working on designs geared to the BOT proposed arrangement, and that a Memorandum of Understanding was about to be signed which would have seen his firm as project consultants. Had the Airports Authority signed a Memorandum of Understanding the project, now the subject of an inquiry, would not have cost taxpayers one cent, he said. Instead, because of the volte- face by the Airports Authority, the country's taxpayers have been saddled with a monumental loans-debt of $1.6 billion for the project, plus interest.

If Scott's testimony given under oath is any indication of what took place, what was responsible for the Airports Authority's about turn? Admittedly, it is standard practice for a new Government in office to review projects likely to be costly, rather than committing itself carte blanche to possible huge expenditure. And, if in the light of stated costs it was inclined to view other projects as being of greater priority, it would either postpone or shelve the project. But as Scott pointedly noted, that with his company's proposal, based on the BOT concept, there would have been no cost to the taxpayers, then or ever. Why did Government not see this arrangement as advantageous to Trinidad and Tobago? And why opt for a multi-million debt, overall, which already has proven burdensome to the taxpayer? What hitherto unknown New Maths made the Government and the Airports Authority act as though on the assumption that a mystery shrouded beginning price of $630 million, which later skyrocketed to $1.6 billion, would have been cheaper for the taxpayer than the no cost outlined by Scott in his firm's BOT presentation?

Did the Airports Authority seek to impress upon the 1995-2000 Government the wisdom of Scott's proposal? Scott has declared before the Commission of Inquiry that he was "sandbagged" (in our language 'mamaguyed') at an AA Task Force Committee hearing called to examine his firm's presentation of its BOT proposal. In turn, he indicated that Ish Galbaransingh, then Chairman of the Tourism and Industrial Development Company, whose Northern Construction Limited would later be the principal contractor in the Piarco project, was part of that Task Force Committee.

He would recall that Galbaransingh was aggressive in his questioning, and at one point posed 'non-sensical' questions. Why was Galbaransingh allowed to sit in at the hearing and challenge Scott's BOT presentation, when at that point he clearly must have had an interest in the project?

And yet, when the Birk Hillman company made it's presentation before the same Task Force Committee five or six Cabinet ministers found it necessary to be present.

What are we to make of this? What we do know is that Birk Hillman was named as the consultant for the project and the construction contract was awarded to Ish Galbaransingh. The taxpayers of this country need answers to these troubling questions and the line Minister at the time Mr Sadiq Baksh would do well to reconsider his decision to ignore the summons to appear before the Commission. Otherwise, he will not be able to blame taxpayers for jumping to their own conclusion.

Trinidad and Tobago News

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