In January, motorists from West Bay experienced the dark, hopefully before the dawn, as construction related to the Esterley Tibbetts Highway extension brought traffic to a near-standstill each workday morning.
The locus of the congestion is the diversion of Yacht Drive while workers build the new Yacht Drive roundabout. Neighbourhood residents are trying to turn south onto West Bay Road. Tourist traffic is trying to turn into the neighbourhood to access the North Sound. That all conflicts with commuters trying to get into George Town.
But the cause of the problem is a sign of the solution. The Yacht Drive roundabout is the final piece of the first phase of the new highway extension, which will eventually run all the way to Batabano Road. The road project has a budget of $32.5 million and is one of the main components of the For Cayman Investment Alliance between the Dart Group and the Cayman Islands government.
Dart and government originally signed a Heads of Terms agreement in June 2011, outlining plans to close the George Town landfill, create a new landfill in Bodden Town, extend the Esterley Tibbetts Highway and close a section of West Bay Road to facilitate Dart’s redevelopment of the former Courtyard by Marriott hotel. Dart acquired the hotel from developer Stan Thomas as part of a roughly $99 million property purchase that was finalised in January 2011.
Dart and government officials held an official groundbreaking ceremony on the highway extension in early September 2011, the same day Cabinet approved the new road. In mid-December 2011, Dart, Cabinet and the National Roads Authority signed an agreement specifically dealing with the highway extension and West Bay Road closure. While some locals had been employed doing preclearance work on the site in preparation for the new road, real construction began in earnest soon after the signing of the Roads Authority agreement.
Following an independent review of the agreement by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Dart and the Roads Authority signed an addendum, finalising the agreement in late summer 2012.
The first phase of the highway extension, taking Esterley Tibbetts from its current terminus at Raleigh Quay up to Yacht Drive, was set to be finished this month, February 2013. The target for completion of the second phase of the extension, taking it all the way to Batabano Road, is the second quarter of the year. The highway project also includes the extension of Reverend Blackmon Road, connecting the new highway to Willie Farrington Drive. The new highway is planned to be divided and have two lanes going each direction.
Sometime after the completion of the first phase of the highway, a roughly 4,290-foot section of West Bay Road, from Governor’s Way to Yacht Drive, will be closed. The precise timing of the road closure is not yet known, but it would be after the section of the highway is gazetted as a new road.
Opening, closing a road
The gazetting of new roads and closing of existing roads are laid out fairly plainly in the Roads Law.
Section 5 of the law empowers Cabinet to “cause any roads to be classified and scheduled as public roads”. According to the law, “Whenever it becomes necessary or desirable for the purposes of this Law to define any public road or proposed public road by reference to the composite map, that function shall be performed by [Cabinet]”.
Section 14 of the law allows Cabinet, following the advice of the Roads Authority, to close any public road and then convert the corridor to Crown land or add it to any private land parcel.
According to the law, “Wherever it appears to [Cabinet], upon recommendation by the Roads Authority, that it is expedient to close a public road or portion of such road he shall publish a declaration to that effect in the Gazette […] such road or portion of road specified in such declaration shall cease to be a road and all public rights of way over the same shall cease after the said date”.
The law gives Cabinet latitude in the terms of the road closure, instructing Cabinet that it shall “have regard to the interests of all persons” whose property was next to the closed road, and so far as Cabinet “thinks fair and just,” to add the closed road corridor to their property “on such terms, in such a manger and to such a degree as [Cabinet] thinks appropriate”.
The law also gives Cabinet the authority to determine the selling price of the closed road corridor, as Cabinet “thinks proper”.
A different part of the law allows the Roads Authority, acting independently of Cabinet, to exchange land with a nearby property owner in order to relocate a road.
According to Section 24 of the law, “The Roads Authority may, for the purpose of adjusting the boundaries of a road, enter into agreement with the owner of any land the boundaries of which adjoin or lie near to the road, providing for the exchange of any such land for land on which the road is situated with or without payment by either party of money for equality of exchange.”
Protestors have taken to the streets to protest the West Bay Road closure, alleging, among other things, that Dart is motivated by profit considerations, and that the company is seizing public land. However, Dart’s plans for the area include creating a nine-acre beach park across West Bay Road from the three-acre Public Beach and surrendering its leasehold on that land to government. Additionally, the closed West Bay Road corridor will be converted into a network of public paths for bicyclists and pedestrians. The trails will run north along the beachfront up to the Yacht Drive roundabout, and will also branch east, going beneath the new highway and onto the Yacht Club.
‘Sufficient roadway capacity’
When the road project is finally complete, West Bay commuters can expect smoother sailing to and from George Town. Although there will still technically be one rout to and from West Bay – at the section of the highway between Raleigh Quay and Yacht Drive – the four-lane divided highway stands to be a vast improvement over the previous situation, where the undivided West Bay Road is the only way in or out of the district, all the way from Yacht Drive to Willie Farrington Drive. The highway project will give commuters options to take West Bay Road via the Yacht Drive Roundabout, to take the Willie Farrington Drive via the new Reverend Blackmon Road, or to take the new highway all the way to Batabano Road.
A September 2011 report by American transportation and engineering planning firm Orth-Rodgers and Associates Inc. concluded that closing the section of West Bay Road and extending the Esterley Tibbetts Highway would “provide a sufficient amount of roadway capacity to accommodate the projected peak hour traffic volumes “, even if all land currently vacant in West Bay reaches its full development potential.
According to the report, “[T]the proposed alignment and the modification of the existing roadway system are acceptable measures taken in providing sufficient roadway capacity for the future full build out condition.”