Ferry Companies and Public Service Commissioner Debate Local Fare Structure

The issue of having valid local IDs in order to enjoy a discounted ferry fare from Cruz Bay, above, to Red Hook irked some residents who returned home for Festival earlier in July.

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How do you define a bona fide resident of the Virgin Islands?

That is the question the Public Services Commission will be grappling with at its next monthly meeting, according to Andrew Rutnik, vice chairman of the PSC.

The question became critical starting around Food Fair on Sunday, June 26, when visitors starting arriving in droves to attend events during the annual St. John July 4th Festival.

As visitors lined up in Red Hook, St. Thomas, to buy ferry tickets for the 15-minute ride to St. John, they found that ticket prices were $1 cheaper each way for residents. Many people who claimed to be residents could not furnish proof of residency to the ticket sellers’ satisfaction, and this led to heated arguments and angry phone calls to the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor, and PSC.

The ferry companies have generally accepted only three forms of identification — a V.I. driver’s license, a voter’s registration card, or senior resident’s card — as valid proof of residency.

“But a lot of people don’t drive, or vote, or don’t carry their ID with them,” said Rutnik. “There were 50, 60, even more complaints by phone and we had to respond right away.”

The PSC called a meeting on Tuesday, June 28, to discuss the issue with representatives from Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services, the two ferry companies that share the franchise to operate ferries between Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John.

The issue particularly affects people who come to the Virgin Islands to work during tourist season. Many of them spend from October to April in the territory. They pay rent and they pay taxes, but they don’t necessarily vote in local elections or change their stateside license. Whether these people qualify as bona fide residents is up for debate.

By the end of that meeting, the Commission voted 4-0 to compel the ferry companies to accept any V.I. government-issued identification, including a food handler’s card, as proof of residency.

Rutnik said the entire rate structure for ferry tickets — which has been in place for about a year — will be examined in the PSC’s upcoming meetings. Whether there should be any discounted rate for locals will be discussed.

Another question regarding fares for students will also be addressed.

Currently students who live on one island but attend school on another are given one daily round trip ferry ticket subsidized by the Department of Education. But when students go home and then return to school to attend a school event, such as a ballgame, concert, or club meeting, they have to pay the full rate adult rate of $6 each way.

Rutnik said these students are sometimes charged $7 each way because they don’t have a driver’s license or voter’s registration card.

Rutnik said it’s time to consider whether the territorial or federal government should subsidize ferry tickets.

“You can go from Fajardo [Puerto Rico] to Culebra [a distance of over 20 miles] for $2.25 each way because the tickets are subsidized by mass transit funds,” he said.