VIPA Eases Up on Barge Schedules; Considers Extending Hours

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The Virgin Islands Port Authority has given its blessing to “fill up and go” to the two companies that are now running barges between St. Thomas and St. John.

“We are relaxing any schedule going forward,” VIPA Executive Director Carlton Dowe told St. John residents at a town meeting held at the Legislature Annex in Cruz Bay on June 21.

In the past, three barge companies have adhered to a set schedule, taking turns departing Cruz Bay and Red Hook roughly every half hour. But since one company, Boyson Inc., ceased operations because of a court action in January, congestion at the two barge terminals has increased.

Complaints about having to wait for a barge for up to two hours have become a mainstay in conversations in homes and public spaces throughout St. John.

Dowe said he would rely on the dock masters to “make sure there’s no chaos” as VIPA moves forward with its plan to allow the barge companies to depart when they’ve reached capacity.

The two barge companies now operating are Love City Car Ferries and Global Marine.

Love City’s CEO Anecia Sewer clarified Dowe’s statement about the flexible scheduling. She said that one of the company’s barges, the Capt. Vic, will strictly adhere to the schedule posted on their website and published in tourist guides.  “You can depend on that schedule if you’re trying to get to an appointment at the doctor’s office,” she said.

However their smaller barge, the Island Vic, will be making additional runs between Cruz Bay and Red Hook during busy times of the day to relieve congestion.  The Island Vic typically makes runs between Cruz Bay and Sub Base with larger, commercial vehicles, including gas trucks.

Sewer did not want to specify how many vehicles could be transported on any particular barge.  The load is based on tonnage rather than number of vehicles, she explained, and additional restrictions are placed on vehicles carrying hazardous materials such as gas.

Love City Car Ferries’ posted schedule specifies seven round trips per day from 6:15 am until 7:00 pm. “It’s the schedule we’ve been operating on since 1997,” Sewer said.  You can rely on that.”

Global Marine makes seven round trips daily with the General II and the Roanoke.  One of its vessels will be out of service for several days pending a Coast Guard inspection, said owner Stanley Hedrington.

Dowe also said that he’s willing to consider extending the evening hours of barge operations from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, and Hedrington said he was prepared to provide barge service as late as 10:00 pm.

But Dowe warned that each additional service must have a funding source. “It doesn’t come without a cost,” he repeated throughout the meeting.

As discussion continued about providing transportation to meet the needs of expanding commerce to St. John, resident Ian Samuel asked whether anyone could start another barge company.  “Put in a request, and we’ll discuss it,” Dowe said.

Dowe attended the meeting with his key staff members, including Julice Harley, his chief of staff; Nycole Thompson, VIPA’s attorney; and Kelvin Industrious, marine manager. But he seldom needed to consult with them as he spoke on a range of VIPA projects and responded to questions from the audience.

Apron

“In a couple of weeks we’ll open the apron area,” said Dowe, referring to the storage area for shipping containers that was recently covered by concrete at the cost of several hundred thousand dollars.  VIPA is now considering offers from businesses which wish to reserve space.

Cruz Bay Parking

VIPA has plans to charge for parking in the Cruz Bay lot across from the post office. Dowe said that parking there should be for short term use only and not for parking all day for trips to St. Thomas.  “It’s for the greater good of the community,” he added.

“I don’t want to see acceleration of this too fast, said Brian Smith, who is running for office as senator–at-large.  “It shouldn’t be a hardship to go to the post office for 15 minutes.”

“People may be uncomfortable with the fees, but we have 350 plus employees that need a paycheck,” Dowe said.  He added that since taking over as the chief executive, all staff VIPA members are now being paid at their contracted rate.

Dowe also confirmed that drawings have been completed and plans are underway to pave the well-used gravel parking lot near the barge facility. Once the project is completed, parking fees will be implemented.  “These things can’t happen for free,” he reiterated, but added that VIPA staff and board members will consider structuring the fees to accommodate residents of the island.

Parking at Red Hook

The plans to construct a parking deck at the lot across from the ferry terminal in Red Hook are moving forward, Dowe said.  VIPA has secured $28 million in bond funding for the second level which will provide 88 additional spaces to the 100 that currently exist.

VIPA would have liked to see the construction of 300 additional spaces, but that would have required a four-story garage which would be unsightly.

Dowe said that since adding one additional level would not meet the need for parking in Red Hook, VIPA was talking to the Government of the Virgin Islands about upgrading and operating a parking lot near the dumpsters to the West of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School.  He said VIPA was exploring the possibility of running shuttle service from that lot to the ferry during the day.

Parking at the VIPA lot is now $10, and Virgin islanders should expect to see an increase, though not to $35 a day, which is the rate charged by one of the three private parking facilities in Red Hook.

Customs in Red Hook

The complicated process of obtaining permits to build a facility in Red Hook for Customs and Immigration offices is underway.  The plan includes an upgrade to the old ferry dock in Red Hook adjacent to newer Urman Victor Fredericks Terminal.  However, Dowe could not give a timeframe for that project.  “We’re awaiting a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and when I say the Army Corps, I really mean all of the other agencies that must sign off on the project.  Some want to know how the ponging [of installing new pilings] will affect the sea turtles,” Dowe said.

The facility in Red Hook is meant to relieve the congestion at the Customs dock in Cruz Bay.  Dowe said he was hearing complaints about delays from boat captains from the British Virgin Islands who had passengers trying to catch airplanes on St. Thomas.

Former Senator-at-large Carmen Wesselhoff-Hedrington asked Dowe if VIPA had any plans to accommodate small boat owners on St. Thomas and St. John. “When you build your customs house in Red Hook, you have to consider sails boats.  It’s becoming very dangerous.”

Dowe replied that VIPA has no plans for a small boat marina in Cruz Bay, and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources would have to decide if mooring in Red Hook would have to be eliminated or moved when the customs facility is built there.

Job Openings on St. John

Dowe told the audience VIPA was looking to fill two job openings in law enforcement on St. John.  Candidates would need to go through the same screening and training as police officers, he said.