Problems Caused by Barge Delays Laid Out In Senate Hearing

Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe (center) testifies at Monday hearing of the Senate Committee of Government Services, Consumer and Veterans Affairs in Cruz Bay Monday night. Photo by Judi Shimel, St. John Tradewinds. [hr gap=”1″]

ST. JOHN —  Public and private officials took turns telling a Senate committee Monday night about the impact of limited barge service experienced for a month between St. Thomas and St. John.

The hearing, called by the 31st Legislature Committee on Government Services, Consumer and Veterans Affairs, took testimony on how a bottleneck in car ferry service left cars and trucks standing at Red Hook on St. Thomas or at Enighed Pond on St. John for hours at a time.

From June 28 to Aug 10, motorists traveling between the two islands had between one and two barges providing service. Inspections carried out by the Coast Guard led to barges being taken out of service until safety requirements were met. In one case a vessel was sidelined after suffering engine and propeller damage.

Testifiers gave committee Chairman Justin Harrigan a long list of problems. One of the most significant delays occurred in construction. An executive for one company, Heavy Materials, said hundreds of thousands of dollars of ready mix concrete was lost because trucks could not deliver their product.

There were also descriptions of gasoline, trash and food and beverage shipments delayed for hours. Correspondence submitted by the VI Hotel and Tourism Association spoke about difficulties with deliveries needed for day to day operation at some St. John hotels.

A letter also came from the Coast Guard, describing the problems that sent two vessels — Cap’t Vic and General II — out of service because of unsatisfactory inspections. Coast Guard officials declined the committee’s invitation to testify in person.

The decision not to appear drew criticism from some lawmakers, but Lt. Commander Elizabeth Newton from the St. Thomas Coast Guard Detachment said safety was at the heart of all decisions made.

“The Coast Guard’s priorities are to safeguard the lives of the people who utilize these vessels, ensure the safety of the maritime transportation system and help facilitate safe maritime commerce in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Newton said. A representative for local barge companies said they agreed with Newton’s stance, in spite of the difficulties.

Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe also appeared in Cruz Bay at the Monday night hearing. Dowe told lawmakers he and members of the VIPA staff kept communication with operators from Love City Car Ferries, Boyson, Inc. and Global Marine while the service limitations played out across Pillsbury Sound.

Complaints were also placed on the record by police. Arlene Charlwell, head of Zone D Command in Cruz Bay said the problems became pronounced when the two barges failed inspection. It occurred, she said, at the same time as St. John Festival, when high powered lights, barricades and all terrain vehicles were shipped up from St. Thomas.

Police were not given priority to return the equipment to St. Thomas, Charlwell said. Equipment sat in the school yard at the Julius E. Sprauve School for several days until space was made available for transport.

The litany of grievances was answered by former Senator-At-Large Carmen Hedrington. She spoke in her role as president of the Association of VI Car Ferry Operators. Hedrington apologized to those who suffered because of the delays. She pointed out that at those times when delays were most extreme, the one barge that remained in service ran until as late as 4 am, moving cars and trucks.

“We hit a bump in the road. It is unfortunate but we hope for better performance in the future. That barge did not stop running until every car was taken to their destination,” Hedrington said.­­

Problems with limited service began in January when Boyson Inc.’s barge, the Mr. B, was seized by a federal bankruptcy court. That left three vessels to provide service, two of which ran into problems by late June.

The explanation of how and why the problems arose as they did left room for questioning by the committee chairman. Harrigan asked Hedrington whether she was downplaying how serious some of the problems were that were cited by the Coast Guard.

Lawmakers were also left to consider the words of Kurt Nose, general manager of Heavy Materials. About $100,000 worth of concrete was disposed of between late June and early August, Nose said. St. John represents 30 percent of all concrete sold by Heavy Materials to the local construction industry.

“Ready mix concrete is a perishable product,” Nose said. He asked for government intervention to prevent a repeat of the problem. Without it, he said, his company may have to reconsider its financial commitment to the Virgin Islands and its workforce.

Senators Myron Jackson, Terrence Nelson, Tregenza Roach, Janette Millin-Young joined Chairman Harrigan for the committee hearing. Non-committee lawmakers Jean Forde and Almando “Rocky” Liburd attended the Monday night hearing as well.