Public transit may never have been great in the territory, then it took a hit in the 2017 hurricanes from which it has not recovered.
Take St. John for example: Bus trips used to leave hourly from the ferry terminal, when the ferry was running, and make a circuit of the island. One of VITRAN’s buses was destroyed in the storms. Now the transit system only makes three circuits a day. Students who want to catch an 8 a.m. ferry have to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus.
The service on St. Croix may even be worse. Sen. Alicia Barnes, at a Senate hearing Monday, said she picked up three ladies in Frederiksted who had been waiting three hours for a bus.
Sen. Javan James, another member of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure and Communications, deplored the condition of public transit in the territory and emphasized its importance. He told Nelson Petty Jr., commissioner nominee of the Department of Public Works, “If you make public transit, regular service, a priority, this place will take off.”
Petty said it was a priority but with challenges – lack of drivers and its fleet size. The fleet will get a boost this September as 10 new, medium-duty buses are expected to arrive on island. Transportation Planner Dennis Chance told the Source that arrival will bring the fleet up to 50 buses. Ten buses which can handle wheel chairs were delivered before the storm. In 2014 the department received 20 buses.
The shortage of drivers appears to be a problem harder to resolve, and senators appeared flummoxed about why.
“Where is the breakdown?” Sen. Novelle Francis asked. “You have vacancies and we have people who want work.”
Petty said three people had been interviewed recently and one hired. Francis noted the $27,000 starting salary might not be too attractive, “but it is better than zero.”
Petty said he expected an “uptick” in service this fall on St. John.
Sen. Alicia Barnes wondered if dollar taxis could be incorporated into a strategic transportation plan. The dollar taxis run much the same routes as the transit buses and many neighborhoods are not serviced.
“We are marginalizing a segment of our community because they don’t have access to transportation,” she said, adding, “If you deny people access to transportation, you deny them access to opportunity.”
Petty told the senators he was aware of the “less fortunate” relying on public transportation because of comments at Town Hall meetings recently held by the department.
However, he also noted, “VITRAN is on a grim path,” concerning finances. He said eliminating free rides for senior citizens was a possible way to increase revenues and another would be raising the bus fare to $2. Any changes in fees need not be permanent, he added.
“We believe if we can get service to the point where it is reliable and punctual, that in itself will increase ridership and revenues,” he said.
While resolving those challenges, VITRAN will modernize in another way. Next month it is connecting to its system a telephone app where residents will be able to punch in their location and find when the next bus will be coming. For now, according to Petty, the app will be telling users, “We will be late.”