The PNM’s curious seabridge history

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The TTWhistleblower is taking a deeper look at the crisis on the seabridge between Trinidad and Tobago.

With yet another delay in the delivery of the Galleon’s Passage, which has drawn more and more fire every time Government officials are asked for updates, one cannot help but ask what triggered the seabridge crisis in the first place.

We have researched the background and today present the first part of an analysis of who is responsible for the poor ferry service between both our islands.

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OUT WITH THE GALICIA

Previously, it was the super-fast Galicia that provided seabridge service between Trinidad and Tobago.

The contract termination with Inter-continental Shipping Company Ltd (ICSL) for the Galicia was known by the Keith Rowley – led PNM Government for over one year before the collapse of the inter-island connection.

Despite this long prior knowledge and a number of closed-door meetings between Government and ICSL, Rowley Administration officials feigned surprise that sea transport between both islands collapsed.

The Rowley Cabinet rejected the renewal of the contract with ICSL’s Galicia.

ICSL managed the sea-bridge service between Trinidad and Tobago with the super-fast, Galicia since 2014 when the former People’s Partnership Government signed a one-year contract.

The Galicia received two one-year contracts – 01 May 2014 to 30 April 2015, and 01 May 2015 to 30 April 2016.

It was reported in April 2017 that the Rowley Cabinet rescinded the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago’s (PATT) commitment to ICSL, one year before, for a two-year contract extension.

In rejecting the Galicia, the Rowley Cabinet had no replacement in mind, despite the fact that the contract renewal for the MV Warrior Spirit was also rejected.

As early as March 2016, ICSL was informed in writing by the Secretary of the Board of the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT), Pamela Ford (sister of the PNM’s Ashton Ford) of the cancellation of the tender process for “The Supply of a Passenger/Cargo Roll on-Roll off Ferry on a three year Time Charter”.

Ford’s letter of 29 March 2016 to ICSL stated: “Regrettably, we wish to advise that the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago has decided to cancel this tender process.”

This letter followed a decision by the PATT Board in late September 2015 to extend the Galicia’s contract by two years.

ICSL wrote to former Works and Transport Minister, Fitzgerald Hinds, in December 2015 citing the PATT’s decision to award a two-year contract, stating that ICSL was yet to be formally notified of official confirmation of the contract.

In the letter to Hinds dated 14 December 2015, ICSL noted that the Galicia had only six days of unscheduled downtime days during its 22-month engagement and further noted that the PATT did not always abide by the contractual agreement.

The letter stated: “It should be noted that the PATT has not always abided by the terms of the contract, and in several instances we ‘carried’ the PATT when it could not pay on time, and in good faith, did not institute the related remedial provisions of the contract.

The ICSL also noted its ‘legitimate expectation’ based on the PATT’s agreement to a two-year contract, stating: “Consequent to this agreement, and based on our legitimate expectations emanating from the 2-year extension, we initiated financing arrangements through a local financial institution for the outright purchase of the vessel. It should be noted that the ship’s owners have agreed in principle to the sale, but advised that otherwise, the vessel will not be returned to Gibraltar at the end of February 2016.”

AN IMBERT CONNECTION?

Hinds did not respond to ICSL and the company then wrote to former Works and Transport Minister, Colm Imbert, in his capacity as Finance Minister.

Imbert was the mastermind behind previous ferry deals in a past PNM Government and had been silent on the issue. The letter was dated 20 January 2016.

Further letters indicate that a meeting eventually took place on 12 December 2016, almost a year later, with ICSL and new Works and Transport Minister, Rohan Sinanan.

During that time, moves were made by the former PATT Chairman, Christine Sahadeo, to find a way to rescind the PATT’s word to ICSL that the contract would be extended by two years.

Sahadeo abruptly resigned earlier in that year.

By April 2017, the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary, Kelvin Charles promised Tobagonians that the sea-bridge connection would not be adversely affected by the Cabinet’s refusal to honour the PATT’s written commitment to renew the ICSL contract for 18 months.

Two days later, Works and Transport Minister, Rohan Sinanan gave a similar commitment in the Senate, promising there would be no problem with cargo transport on the sea-bridge for Easter.

Sinanan told the Senate that Cabinet gave approval for the Port Authority to proceed with chartering a vessel for three years. He promised that the process would be completed by May 2017.

Reports indicated that a vessel called the MV Atlantic Provider from Guyana was contracted as a cargo vessel. While the Galicia transported passengers as well as cargo, the MV Atlantic Provider could only transport cargo.

This is despite the original tender for service of the sea-bridge call for “the Supply of a Passenger/Cargo Roll on-Roll off Ferry on a three year Time Charter”.

The MV Atlantic Provider was to be contracted at a cost exceeding US$18,500 per day.

ICSL, however, offered to provide the Elizabeth Russ ferry to ensure continuity while the Government sought a new sea-bridge service provider at US$13,700 per day.

Concern was expressed in an assessment of the Atlantic Provider’s capability to provide the service. A legal assessment of the PNM’s choice showed that the Atlantic Provider:

(i)                Has a speed of 10-12 knots, making the journey to Tobago last as long as 10 hours;
(ii)               Is unable to carry passengers;
(iii)              Is a single screw ocean vessel, which means it has only one engine;

(iv)              Has a cargo configuration designed for containerized cargo mainly.

As with the sale of the MF Panorama by a previous PNM Government, official information on the exact cost of the service provider, tendering process and the principals of the new service providing company have been kept hidden.

In Part 2 of this series, we look at the PNM’s history of mismanagement of the seabridge, dating back to the Williams/Chambers Administrations.

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