JSC begins Solomon Hochoy Highway extension inquiry

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Work in progress on a third lane on the Solomon Hochoy Highway. – File photo by Roger Jacob

PARLIAMENT’S Land and Physical Infrastructure Joint Select Committee will begin its inquiry into the 2010-2023 Solomon Hochoy Highway extension project from 10 am on March 20 at the Red House, Port of Spain.

The meeting comes four months after the Prime Minister called for the committee to urgently examine details of the project and report its findings to Parliament.

Dr Rowley made this call in a statement in the House of Representatives on November 1. He said the public needed answers about what happened with that project under the UNC-led People’s Partnership (PP) from May 24, 2010-September 7, 2015.

“The public, through its representatives in this House, must seek and obtain answers from all persons involved in or associated with this scandal.

“This is even more necessary since, in recent times, attempts have been made to give opportunity to person/s to put misinformation on the parliamentary record,” Rowley said.

He then listed some burning questions:

By what process, advice and documentation was it determined that the billion-dollar contract must be amended to grant an $852 million waiver to (Construtora) OAS (the Brazilian company that was the project’s contractor)?

Who authorised the amendment of the contract?

What was the specific purpose and benefit to be had, and by whom?

Who actually carried out the instructions?

What was the role of the Ministry of Works and Transport, the board of Nidco (National Infrastructure Development Company), the consultant and the management in effecting the amendment and its consequent waiver?

While the project was a concept of the earlier Patrick Manning administration, Rowley said the facts showed it did not begin under the PNM.

“The Pt Fortin highway exercise was initiated through the process of invitation of tenders in early 2010. Although tenders were received in April 2010, the contract was not awarded by the PNM prior to the May 24 general election, since the bids received were significantly higher than the engineer’s estimate of $3.6 billion.”

A proper review and revision were called for. but did not happen before the election.

On March 4, 2011, the PP awarded a design-build contract to OAS for $5.2 billion.

Rowley said: “This is $1.6 billion more than the original engineer’s estimate.”

Before the contract was awarded to OAS, he continued, “An interested group of known high-level Brazilian executives of OAS flew by Dassault private jet from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Durban in South Africa, in pursuit of the said contract.”

A meeting took place at Angelo Towers in Johannesburg, South Africa during the 2010 World Cup there, he claimed.

Rowley said to date, no member of the UNC has ever denied this “transatlantic secret meeting” took place or its outcome in relation to the project’s being awarded to OAS.

The contract for the project was governed by the FIDIC (International Federation of Consulting Engineers) Yellow Book.

Rowley said, “One of the major benefits of utilising FIDIC terms and conditions is that these terms and conditions are standard and internationally recognised.”

He claimed the PP did not adhere to FIDIC rules.

When the contract was initiated, the PP made advance payments of $856 million to OAS, when the company should have received $428 million.

Rowley said there was no deduction of $236.4 million from the advance payment to OAS, which involved “payments made to OAS for activities under the letter of intent.”

He added, “So even before construction began, before the ground was scratched, the former government provided OAS with over $1 billion of taxpayers’ funds.”

The project, he said, was in limbo when the PNM assumed office after the 2015 general election.

The JSC will add another layer of scrutiny to the project.

In 2019, a commission of enquiry (CoE) was appointed to look into land acquisition for the project after there were reported over-valuations and more than half a billion dollars had been spent.

During a Standing Finance Committee meeting of the House on October 14, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) Stuart Young said $11 million has been spent so far on this CoE.

JSC members

The Land and Physical Infrastructure JSC is chaired by Independent Senator Deoroop Teemal.

Its other members are: government MPs Kennedy Richards, Symon de Nobriga and Lisa Morris-Julian and senators Muhammad Yunus Ibrahim and Renuka Sagramsingh-Sooklal; UNC MP Barry Padarath and UNC Senator Anil Roberts.