Efforts to get harbor transportation on St. Thomas up and running by next tourist season has spurred a comprehensive study that could also put St. John and St. Croix ferry services under one umbrella, according to Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty Jr.
Three weeks ago, members of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association got a firsthand look at the ferries being commissioned to run a route that includes two stops along the Waterfront and one at Havensight. In a recent interview, Petty said the route could potentially include Water Island, but that hasn’t been decided on yet.
One of the major factors in the decision will be whether the company operating on the route has the passenger capacity to operate on days when there are five or six ships in the harbor, along with any local traffic, Petty said. Public Works put out a request for proposals (RFP) for harbor transportation before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in 2017, and while the territory’s subsequent recovery delayed the process, the general scope of work is still the same, he said.
“The bid that went out required vendors to show their capacity and what they had in their fleet to demonstrate whether they are capable of running the routes,” Petty explained. “One or two vessels won’t do it, and we need to make sure we look at that.”
The first vendor chosen had to bow out after being affected by some “external issues,” so Public Works had to move onto the next responsive bidder, Petty said. Until an operating agreement is signed, the department won’t release the name of the vendor, but feedback from cruise officials after the recent test runs has been favorable, he said.
“During the demonstrations, the cruise industry was able to see firsthand the operation and timing to make sure it’s all viable,” Petty said. “They’re going to be the biggest user, and since the beginning, they’ve been the biggest supporters of this operation, and have been pushing it for some time.”
For Petty, however, part of the “allure” of having harbor transportation is also being able to give everyday residents the opportunity to get across the island quickly. For someone stationed in Subbase, jumping onto a boat and getting to Havensight for a meeting in five to six minutes is appealing, he said.
That idea has also spurred a new study within the department that got started about a month ago and involves stakeholders ranging from the St. John franchise ferry companies to the Public Services Commission. The study looks at the feasibility of developing a comprehensive ferryboat program, to include St. John and St. Croix routes, along with the harbor transportation.
“We just want to get an idea of what that could look like,” Petty said. “It could mean setting up a harbor transit authority within VITRAN (which runs the buses) or it could be something on its own. The study would tell us the best route.”
While that process continues, Petty said the goal is to at least get harbor transportation up and running on St. Thomas by the upcoming tourist season. Along with continuing with the tests and ensuring that the current vendor’s capacity is good, Petty said Public Works has also been looking at what neighboring islands do to get a better idea of any challenges, how operations run and exactly how many vessels it actually takes to create an effective transportation system.