01 May 2010

There Goes the Neighborhood

Last week I attended a talk given by the President of the St. Barths. The island is now a Collectivitie of France. (Don't ask what that means, nobody but the President knows.)

So the former Mayor is now the current President. No, he has no secret service protection, still drives himself around in the same old pickup truck, and one does not stand when he enters the room. If there is a French version of "Hail to the Chief", it is not employed here. On the other hand, Mr. Magras does observe at least one Presidential formality: When he goes to meetings, he wears long pants. (As far as I can tell, there are no neckties on this island. Perhaps they are illegal? I did see a guy wearing a yellow sports jacket at the Santa Fe restaurant last month, but I am told the matter was promptly reported to the authorities and the Gendarmes put the guy on the early morning plane back to Greenwich, CT.)

But it is clear this is a new order. The President, with greater control over the island’s finances, has embarked on a road improvement program. Gasp! Where will the charm go? The program includes the widening of the several single lane paths that are open to two-way traffic. (Yup, meet someone head-on while driving on of those "roads" and one of the drivers must back up, pull into a driveway, or, as has happened, just sit there and cry until the other driver yields somehow.) Some of the recently improved two-lane paths (still so ridiculously narrow that only the most foolhardy soul would drive with an elbow on the window sill) now actually have sidewalks. The sidewalks are a useful innovation: if they are very narrow, drivers park with only two wheels on the walk; some of the broader sidewalks hold the entire vehicle.

Perhaps the second half of the English word “sidewalk” does not translate well into French.

On the two-way road in front of La Plage restaurant in St. Jean, the cars park on the verge on the south side of the road, but the road is so narrow, the east-bound traffic sometimes utilizes the two-foot wide sidewalk on the north side as part of the roadway. Sort of funny to see those canted vehicles speeding by---except when one needs to use the sidewalk to get from the beach access path to one’s car. When using the sidewalk, I generally walk holding my aluminum frame beach chair six inches out into the roadway. It’s the only defense I have.

But the road construction program is not universally accepted. There are at least two foot-draggers: EDF and FranceTelecom. The President does not control the state owned electric and telephone companies, and thus he does not own or control their poles, which, of course, were erected on the edges of the old goat paths when the Vikings discovered this island. Or Christopher Columbus, or whoever.

The anomalous result is we now have some two lane roads with telephone poles in the middle of the one of the lanes. Some of the more dour citizens have suggested this sorta of defeats the purpose of having two lanes. The President had a plan for this: the new roads were constructed with underground ducts to hold the telephone and electric cables. The plan was a win, win, win; the roads would be passable to two-way traffic, we would reduce the risk of power outages in case a hurricane hit the island, and the poles and wires would no longer mar the landscape. Neat, huh?

But who is to pay for the removal of the poles and the concomitant re-wiring? The Collectivitie has said to the utility companies, “They are your poles, your wires, we gave you the conduit, just chop down your poles and thread your wires through our conduits.”

But the state-owned utilities already operate here at a great loss—e.g., electric rates are uniform throughout France, so we, who burn oil to make electricity, pay the same for electric power as does a Parisian whose power comes from a national network of far more efficient nuclear plants. It is estimated that islanders pay but 25-30% of the cost of the electric power they consume.

As a result, the utility companies have come up with an elegant low-cost solution to the pole-in-the-middle-of-the-road problem: They put red tape around the poles so the driver can see the pole before he hits it.

Of course, upon approaching one of the tape-enhanced poles, the driver also has the option of avoiding it by swerving left into the adjacent lane, which is okay except in those instances when the adjacent lane happens to be occupied by an on-coming vehicle traveling at standard St. Barths vehicular speed, which is warp. This solution nevertheless appears acceptable to the utility companies as long as the on-coming vehicle is not owned by them, and there is scant likelihood of that. There are 10,000 vehicles on this island and, to my keen observation, EDF and FranceTelecom each owns two of them.

As to the notion they should pay to remove the poles and re-wire the island, the utilities’ position is simple: “We agree they are our poles, and it is our wires that hang from them. When we erected the poles, we placed them where they belonged. You 21st century types then came along and built your road around our poles. You changed the game, you pay for the changes.”

Our President replies that he may just do exactly that, and then impose a tax on the utilities to get his money back.

While the big boys work this out, we drivers keep our left elbows tucked in.

Ahh, Pinks and I will soon travel back to a truly modern city, from whence, on our way to Montauk, we get to use the Long Island Expressway where we do not have this problem: no poles, no sidewalks, and everybody just parks on the six lanes that Robert Moses built.

A bientot.