The price of riding the ferry to Red Hook will not increase for at least 60 days, if at all.
At a Tuesday evening, May 12, meeting before a packed house of about 80 people at the St. John Legislature building, V.I. Public Services Commission members voted to stay their order, passed last month, to increase most ferry fares for runs between St. John and St. Thomas.
On April 1, PSC members voted to increase the adult one-way fare from St. John to Red Hook from $5 to $7, and to decrease the one-way fare from St. John to Charlotte Amalie from $10 to $8.
Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services, the ferry companies which have the exclusive franchise for the runs, were to implement the rate changes at the end of the month. There will be no action now, however, until at least mid-July in order to give the PSC time to take a closer look at both companies’ financial records.
PSC members will select a hearing examiner at their next regular meeting, scheduled for May 19 on St. Thomas. The 60-day stay will allow the examiner to schedule public hearings and answer questions raised by the V.I.
Unity Day Group regarding the franchisees’ financial situations.
On the heels of the PSC’s April ruling, members of the Unity Day Group filed a petition for reconsideration of the order which listed a number of issues with the ferry companies’ financial records, from claiming loans and payments to officers as expenses, to paying for a condo time share from company coffers.
The group’s petition alleges that the PSC’s order effectively set unfair, unjust and discriminatory rates, making the ruling illegal.
Testifying before the PSC on Tuesday night, Unity Day Group member Nydia Lewis said the rate hikes are not fair to St. John residents and provide more than the legally allowed eight percent rate of return.
“These new rates will cause undue hardship for residents of St. John,” said Lewis. “The approved rates are not reasonable and certainly not fair. They allow for more than the eight percent rate of return which makes them against the law.”
Under the approved rate structure, a Love City family of five would shell out $70 just for transportation to and from St. Thomas, explained Unity Day Group member Myrtle Barry.
“We don’t have a choice, if we want to go to the movies, to a graduation or an event in St. Thomas, we have to ride the ferry,” said Barry.
Many testifiers at the meeting called for the ferry companies to receive federal funding, subsidizing the rates they need to collect to stay in business while not putting an undue hardship on the riding public.
“We need to push to strike a balance for the ferry companies to receive assistance and not have the burden weighing solely on the riders,” said Stacie January, a Unity Day Group member and commuter. “We need to work together to get the companies subsidies and not tax the public.”
There are federal funds available for the ferry companies through mass transit subsidy programs, but the companies themselves can not apply for them, explained Lorelei Monsanto, the Unity Day Group’s president.
“Through our research, we’ve found several sources available to assist ferries and PSC to make headway on getting the subsidies,” Monsanto said. “The ferries can’t request the funds themselves, government officials must do it. We request the fees stay at $5 until the PSC can verify our research and answer our questions.”
While supporting the Unity Day Group’s efforts, the ferry companies need the increased fares to stay afloat, explained Claudette Ferron, the companies’ lawyer.
“Ferry boat operators have been shouldering a massive burden and the public has been shouldering a massive burden for too long,” said Ferron. “By law this is a government responsibility contracted out. To return the rate to $5 would undermine the need to increase the rate in order the for ferry companies to stay in business.”
“The PSC is in a lose-lose situation since the ferry companies can not operate under the current rate and the people can not stand the rate increase,” said Ferron. “It’s time to approach the partner who is not here — the government.”
Granting the ferry companies’ increase will only add to a drop in ridership, according to Sherry-Ann Francis, a St. John resident who commutes to work in St. Thomas.
“The decrease in ridership is due to the increase in the rates,” said Francis. “Fewer people ride the ferry now because the fares are high. If less people ride the ferry because of this increase will you raise the rates again?”
PSC member Verne David applauded the public participation in the matter, but wondered where everyone was when the commission was making their decision in April.
“You have some valid points, but where were you earlier?” said David. “I applaud you guys for being here, but you must take greater responsibility to express your concerns before we make a decision.”
The PSC will publicize dates of future meetings, which members said they will make an effort to host on St. John. For more information contact Lorna Nichols at the PSC at 776-2191.