May 12, 2009 — After listening to about four hours of testimony from ferry companies, the St. John-based V.I. Unity Day Group members and several residents, the Public Services Commission voted Tuesday to put a 60-day hold on ferry fare increases that were meant to be implemented in May so it can launch a rate investigation.
"Based on new information, we're opening the process again," PSC Chairman Joseph Boschulte said.
The PSC agreed to revisit the issue after the Unity Day Group filed a request for reconsideration of the PSC's April 1 decision to let Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services raise their rates. The April 1 decision followed a PSC rate investigation into the ferry companies' request for fare increases.
Nearly 100 people attended the meeting held at the Legislature building.
The PSC's decision to delay the ferry fare increases came after several people, including the Unity Day Group, questioned information included in the hearing examiner's report that led to the rate increases.
"I see $1 million in unpaid gross receipts taxes by one company. I see loans to officers. I see a time-share condo mentioned. I have no idea if this is true," St. John resident Sharon Coldren said, listing items mentioned in the Unity Day Group's request for reconsideration.
While residents saw flaws in the information, the bottom line is the effect the rate increases will impose on all ferry boat riders. However, St. John residents will feel the pinch the most because many commute to St. Thomas for work. Other must take the ferry for medical appointments and shopping that can't be done on St. John.
"The average person has to work one extra hour to pay for the transportation," St. John resident and commuter Sherry Ann Francis said.
Rates on the Cruz Bay, St. John to Red Hook, St. Thomas ferry runs were slated to go from $5 to $7, with increases also in place for senior, bulk and student tickets. The fare on the Cruz Bay to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas route would decrease from $10 to $8.
Numerous testifiers stressed that the ferry companies need subsidies to operate.
"It seems very clear that V.I. law allows for subsidies," said Nydia Lewis, who serves as head of the Unity Day Group's Transportation Committee.
However, attorney Claudette Ferron, who represents both Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services ferry companies, said that although the companies should receive subsidies under the terms of their franchise because they serve as mass transit and the Legislature included the subsidy in the government's budget for the last five years, the companies don't get the money.
"The question is, where is the money?" Ferron said.
While several people said that federal money is available for subsidies, St. John resident and Unity Day Group President Lorelei Monsanto pointed out that only the local government can access those funds.
The meeting got hot after PSC Commissioner Verne David took Unity Day Group members to task for what he believed was their late entry into the ferry boat rate investigation. He claimed that no public advocacy groups showed up at PSC meetings on the ferry fares.
"I feel your pain, but you have to take greater responsibility in representing your position," David said.
Not so, Monsanto said, noting that she spoke at a meeting held on St. John. While she said she requested that subsequent meetings about the ferry fares be held on St. John, the next meeting was on St. Thomas.
"Do you expect all of us to get on the boat? We have to do 200 percent. It's an extreme hardship," she said.
After telling David that he was being unreasonable, she said the Unity Day Group is prepared to go to court.
St. John resident Myrtle Barry of the Unity Day Group outlined just how expensive it is for St. John residents to make trips to St. Thomas. She said that it costs $70 in transportation costs for a family of five.
Later, St. Thomas resident Clarence Payne said that tourists staying on St. Thomas often visited St. John for dinner, but that the fare increases will make it too expensive.
In addition to Boschulte and David, PSC members Donald "Ducks" Cole, Elsie Thomas-Trotman, and M. Thomas Jackson voted to stay the rate increases. Sirri Hamad was absent.
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