Former Public Works Minister under the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), Robeson Benn, has supported calls for “a full-fledged public investigation” into the controversial Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) expansion project, particular the fixed-price contract with China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) which the coalition Government has “tremendously modified”.
“I support calls for a full-fledged public investigation into how a fixed-price contract could be subject to changes in scope and intent,” Benn said in a statement on Tuesday in response to comments made by Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson on Monday.
Minister Patterson, in a statement posted to his social media account, threw the blame for the delays of the CJIA expansion project at the feet of the former Administration, despite taking control of the project almost four years ago.
However, in a subsequent missive on Tuesday, Benn explained that Guyana entered into the design and build fixed-price contract with CHEC for the expansion of the CJIA to address issues such as congestion and ageing facilities. He noted that the payment was made on the usual 30 per cent mobilisation advance to the Chinese company, which was bonded.
“Initial delays in project start-up occurred as CHEC sought to extract an increase in the project sum by US$30 million. Their effort was refused based on international contracting rules for fixed-price contracts and the considered view that they sought increase was not warranted, anyway,” he stated.
According to the former Public Works Minister, by the time the coalition Government took over the project in 2015, the performance schedules of many national contracts were in difficulty because of budgetary cuts imposed by the then APNU and AFC parliamentary opposition.
“It is now evident that the scope of this project seems to have been tremendously modified with the effect of impairing the project’s original intended validity and integrity… It is obvious that the Minister is making an attempt, utilising his Facebook page and friends, to assign blame elsewhere for failings on the project after being responsible for the project for almost four years,” Benn posited.
He went on to clear the air on “assertions” made by Patterson, starting with the project supervision. The Minister had said that CHEC worked for over 18 months without any independent supervision. But according to Benn, before the supervising consultants – MMM Group Limited in association with Caribbean Engineering and Management Consultants (CEMCO) – came on stream in July 2014, the Ministry’s Works Services Group (WSG) undertook supervisory responsibility of the project from its commencement in January 2013.
Furthermore, in addressing the allegations of allowing extra sand filling and determining the cost of the sand made by the Public Infrastructure Minister, Benn pointed out that the sand had to be provided free of royalties, which are costs that would have been charged back to the project, anyway. He added too that the sand provided was designed to allow for placement of an engineered fill, at levels of compaction and stability to provide for a safe, stable runway extension.
In 2012, the then PPP/C Administration secured a US$138 million loan from the China Exim (Export-Import) Bank to fund the expansion and modernisation project, for which Guyana was slated to inject some US$12 million.
However, even though Patterson said the airport specifications were downgraded to limit cost overruns, the coalition Government went to the National Assembly last year for $346.5 million in supplementary funds towards the purchase and installation of two additional air bridges. In 2019, taxpayers are expected to hand out even more funds as the project remains in an incomplete state.
The extension of works into 2019 comes in disparity to an earlier commitment by Government where it committed that the works associated with the expansion would have been completed by the last quarter of 2018.
Initially, the project was scheduled to be completed within 32 months of its commencement in 2013. Later on, officials were optimistic of the project being completed by 2017. But having missed that deadline, Minister Patterson had assured a December 2018 completion.
During a press conference back in January following a media tour of the facility where works were still ongoing, the Public Infrastructure Minister gave a new deadline of March 31.
But according to Benn, with this new deadline having also passed, “we are, apparently, now being asked to prepare ourselves, via Facebook, to accept less for more in the result along with experiencing excessive and prolong delays related to this project”.