With the approval of a ferry transportation plan by the Federal Transit Administration, the territory is able to tap into a “whole new realm of funding,” including the $5.1 million recently awarded to Public Works for the purchase of a third vessel designed to run the route between St. Thomas and St. John, according to Commissioner Derek Gabriel.
The department had been working on the plan for well over 12 months when it was submitted and approved by the FTA in October 2021.
“It was something that was on our corrective action plan, which would enable us to tap into future funding opportunities,” Gabriel said in an interview with the Source. “Now we are in good standing with the FTA with our maritime federal aid routes.”
Gabriel added that working in tandem with the two companies – Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services – managing the St. Thomas-St. John route, the department was also able to collect the data needed to show the current ferry fleet was not enough to make peak demand at peak hours. A third, larger vessel – Public Works currently owns two that are running the route – would help solve the problem, he said.
Now, with the data, the federal funds offer the government another way to be able to subsidize the companies. Public Works is currently not approved to offer subsidies for operating expenses but rather capital equipment, Gabriel said.
“We’re excited for a lot of different reasons,” he added. “This is another way to subsidize the companies, addressing our peak demand for residents and visitors, but as this is the first time in 10 years we’ve won one of these grants, we’re excited about the positive momentum this builds for future awards.”
That could include a St. Thomas-St. Croix ferry, though funding for that is upwards of $8 million.
The $5.1 million grant was awarded through the U.S. Transportation Department’s Passenger Ferry Grant Program, which funds capital projects supporting existing passenger ferry service, establishing new ferry service, and upgrading ferry boats, terminals, and related facilities or equipment. The grants also help transit agencies and ferry companies offset the cost of introducing new climate-friendling propulsion technologies.
“The importance of reliable transportation between our islands cannot be overstated,” Delegate Stacey Plaskett added in a recent release about the award. “The funding will serve to augment the current St. Thomas-St. John ferry fleet to accommodate an increase in ridership as well as maintain consistent service; it will cover the cost for a large capacity ferry, 100 feet long, with a capacity of 300 passengers. The third ferry will ensure service remains consistent when any ferries are out for repair.”
Plaskett added her hope that the government will make use of other funding sources – including the American Rescue Plan and President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – to continue building out a federally supplemented ferry system between St. Croix and St. Thomas.