Ferry-goers don’t need to worry about carrying dimes anymore, but will soon need to have a few more dollars in their wallets for the ride to Red Hook.
On Wednesday night, April 1, the Public Services Commission voted to rescind the $1.10 fuel surcharge which had been in place since June 6, 2008.
Wrapping up a months-long rate investigation, the public service regulators voted to raise the adult one-way fare from Cruz Bay to Red Hook from $5 to $7. The board also voted to lower the adult one-way fare from Cruz Bay to Charlotte Amalie from $10 to $8.
The rate increases and decreases go into effect next month. While different riders to Charlotte Amalie will pay more and other less, all passengers riding to Red Hook will be forking over more money.
Children, seniors and students will all pay $2 each way to Red Hook, instead of the current rates of $1, $1.25 and $1.50, respectively.
For the Charlotte Amalie run, bulk riders will see their fares drop while other passengers will watch their ticket prices rise and still others will see no difference.
Seniors will pay $6, up from $5, commuters will pay $6, which is the current rate, and bulk ticket users will pay $6, $2 less than the $8 rate now in effect for a one-way fare to Charlotte Amalie.
As news of the impending rate hike spread, callers flooded Senator at Large Craig Barshinger’s phone lines.
“We’ve gotten a flood of phone calls from people who are concerned about the ferry rates, the quality of the ferry services,” said Barshinger. “They’re wondering why they get such poor service even though they keep paying more. The rates keep going up and the service is flat.”
“Some people are saying service on the ferries has even gotten worse,” Barshinger said.
While the senator at large lauded the sole dissenting PSC vote, from Elsie Thomas-Trotman, the sole board member from St. John, he questioned the PSC’s effectiveness in its mandate to protect the public.
“I applaud Elsie Thomas-Trotman for voting no, but I feel that the PSC is not being an advocate for the grass roots men and women who must travel between the island,” said Barshinger. “The PSC does not represent the companies, the PSC is supposed to represent the individual. I believe there are signs that the PSC is not representing the grass roots, hardworking ferry user.”
Barshinger intends to host a town meeting this month to bring all the parties together to discuss the issue, he explained.
“Our earliest potential date for a town hall meeting is April 23 when we’ll invite the PSC, the Coast Guard, the ferry companies and Port Authority to come and start a dialogue with the public,” said the senator at large.
“We don’t want to attack the PSC or the ferry company owners, we want to have a dialogue. Obviously people want to say they can’t afford this, but we have to listen to the PSC and the ferry companies to hear their stories.”
As every single other jurisdiction under the U.S. flag finds a way to offer affordable public transportation, it seems a solution must be possible, Barshinger added.
“There is clearly a solution because there are dozens, if not hundreds, of jurisdictions where people move inexpensively over large bodies of water and don’t pay nearly this much,” he said. “We don’t have to invent something that has already been invented.”
Ferry company owners have been operating in the red for years, according to Attorney Claudette Ferron, legal representative for Varlack Ventures Inc. and Transportation Services, which enjoy exclusive franchise rights for the ferry service.
“The ferry companies have been operating below what the rate is supposed to have been for decades,” said Ferron. “The rate increases over the last couple of years do not begin to compensate for the losses they have incurred over the decades. With this increase the ferries, for the first time in recent history, will begin to approach their mandated by law rate of return.”
The blame for rising ferry rates lies not with the company owners, but the government, Ferron explained.
“Public transportation in the Virgin Islands is a three-way concern,” she said. “One is the provider — the ferry boat companies are supposed to provide the service. Two is the PSC, which is supposed to regulate the service and three is the government of the Virgin Islands which is supposed to subsidize the cost of public transportation.”
“With the exception of small subsidies over the last couple of years from local funds, the government has not provided any assistance in the entire duration of the ferry boat operation,” Ferron said. “If the government provided subsidies it would considerable reduce the rate that the public would have to pay. That is what happens in every other jurisdiction.”
“The public needs to ask the government where that money is,” Ferron said. “It’s very unfortunate that the public is always upset with the ferry boats when they should be upset with the government.”
The ferry companies themselves are to blame for the lack of federal and local funding, according to Steve Black.
“The ferry companies never helped get the subsidies,” said Black. “Poor records has always been the problem. Federal highway funds are available but the ferries don’t fight for them.”
While ferry company owners and government officials battle it out, its the riding public who pays the price.
“This is not just some luxury service, this is something that affects a lot of people every single day,” Barshinger said. “The people who travel regularly are just outraged. They feel like this is adding insult to injury.”
“It’s coco bay ‘pon top a yaz,” said an exasperated Barshinger.