Feb. 24, 2005 Commuters traveling between St. Thomas and St. John may soon receive a jolt when they reach into their pockets to pay for ferry tickets.
Representatives from Transportation Services Inc., one of two companies operating ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John, asked the Public Services Commission for a rate increase Thursday.
Currently, a one-way ticket between Red Hook and Cruz Bay is $3, and passengers pay $6 for a round trip ticket. The trip to and from Charlotte Amalie runs $7 one-way, and $14 round trip. Transportation Services representatives did not indicate how much of an increase they are looking for.
Claudette Ferron, attorney for Transportation Services, told the commission the rate increase request was due in part to increased fuel costs and port fees, and Homeland Security issues.
"We have not been able to recoup our fuel expenses," Ferron said, adding that their fares were "one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in the nation."
PSC member Alecia Wells, said, "I too think that the fare is low compared to other places, but I hope that there will be improved services and more customer training as well. The personnel leave a lot to be desired."
Wells, a St. John resident who commutes daily, said improvements should be made to ramps and the uniforms of the boat staff. Also, better communication is needed to inform commuters of delays and which boat is going downtown or to Red Hook.
"Those are the little things I think should be included in that packet," Wells said.
Kenrick Augustus, Transportation Services manager, told Wells, "A lot of the things you've mentioned are already in progress."
Augustus said the ferry company was currently negotiating with the V.I. Port Authority to install a public-address system at the Cruz Bay terminal on St. John. Augustus said they have already bought the equipment but need permission from the Port Authority for the installation. The PA system would be part of the terminal to be constructed in Red Hook.
Sandra Setorie, PSC assistant executive director, told Augustus many residents have called the commission with complaints that they do not receive notices of boat delays on time, which causes them to miss appointments. She also said there is sometimes not enough room on the ferries to accommodate everyone.
Augustus said they were working on those issues.
"We can only send two boats for one trip now that we have more people traveling," Augustus said.
Each ferry holds 250 people but during certain times of the day more than 500 people can be at the docks waiting for transportation, and some people cannot be accommodated.
"Until we're able to get larger equipment to carry the people, we won't be able to solve some of these problems," Augustus said, adding the increase in fares would help them in the purchase of bigger boats. Augustus said the larger boats they are seeking to purchase cost around $4 million each.
"I must plead with you that we need rate relief," Augustus said. "We need to have a rate increase to allow for more equipment to handle the volume, which of course is going to keep rising."
PSC member Verne David asked Augustus and Ferron why the other "head" of the "two-headed animal" of the ferry franchise Varlack Ventures was not present at the hearing. Varlack and Transportation Services are the only two public commuter ferries offering service between St. Thomas and St. John.
"I don't see this commission providing an increase on your submission alone," David said.
Augustus said he did not know why representatives from Varlack chose not to attend, but they had not expressed any resistance to working together. Ferron added the two companies would send a joint application for the rate increase.
"When we speak, we're speaking of a rate increase for the two companies under the franchise agreement," Ferron said.
PSC Legal Counsel Boyd Sprehn recommended commission chairman Valencio Jackson appoint a hearing examiner to conduct a rate investigation of the ferries. The commission unanimously voted to accept the counsel's recommendation.
Jackson said he would personally visit both ferry companies before selecting a hearing examiner.
PSC commissioners attending the hearing Thursday were: Jerris Browne, David, Jackson, Alric Simmonds and Wells. Yvette Canegata-Jones was excused and Desmond Maynard was absent.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name, and the city and state/country or island where you reside.