PSC and Ferry Companies Propose Hiking Fares for Tourists, Students and Teachers


Jackie Clendinen, above standing, testifies during last week’s PSC meeting.

St. John ferry companies — facing expected losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars if the current ticket prices continue — recently requested another fare hike from the Public Services Commission.

The companies, Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services of St. John, operate a single franchise for the ferry runs between St. Thomas and St. John and must get approval for fare increases by the PSC, whose mission is to balance the interests of the utility as well as the rate payer.

PSC officials hosted a public hearing on the requested fare hike on Wednesday evening, February 27, at Julius E. Sprauve School, which drew about 30 residents.

After long and at times “hard-fought battles” the companies and PSC officials compromised on a proposal to increase fares for students, teachers and bulk ticket riders while creating a new category of rider classified as “tourist,” explained PSC’s counsel Attorney Tanisha Bailey-Roka.

Currently there are seven categories of riders; adult, child, senior, commuter, bulk, student and teacher. The new category of “tourist” would apply to any passenger of any age who does not possess a Virgin Islands identification card of some sort.

The proposed fare structure for trips to Red Hook would keep fares the same for all categories of riders except students, teachers, bulk riders and the new tourist designation of rider.

Students, who currently pay $2 each way, would see fares hiked to $3.25, while teachers would pay $4 each way, up from $3. Bulk riders will pay $3.50 instead of $3. Tourists, whether one year old or 80 years old, will shell out $7 for the one way trip to Red Hook.

The proposal also calls for an increase in baggage fees from the current $2.50 per bag to $4 per bag.

For the downtown Charlotte Amalie run — which does not include student or teacher fares — one-way fares would up to $10 for bulk riders and $13 for tourists. The baggage fee would be $4 per bag.

The proposed fare increases were designed to cause the least amount of hardship for local residents, explained Attorney Maria Hodge, legal counsel for the St. John ferry companies.

“This proposal was designed to minimize the burden on the community,” said Hodge. “We worked, with some effort, with PSC staff to agree to impart the revenue burden on tourists who can afford to pay more and on the government, which pays the fare for teachers and students, to make a reasonable contribution to the public transportation system.”

“There was a lot of discussion to minimize the impact on the travelling public,” said Bailey-Roka. “Bare in mind this is a compromise document and the best we could get to take the burden off the public and the utility. This, we think, is a creative way to make the revenue infusions the ferry companies needed while being mindful of the public reality.”

Bailey-Roka read the nine page document, which spelled out estimated losses of about $650,000 for the ferry companies under the current fare system. The companies are supposed be entitled to a rate of return between six and eight percent.

After reading the proposed fare increases, the public had to a chance share their concerns and ideas with Hearing Examiner Attorney Dolace McLean, who will ultimately make a recommendation to the PSC board.

Jackie Clendinen suggested the ferry companies look into operating smaller vessels.

“The price of fuel will continue to go up and we’re likely to see even less ridership too,” said Clendinen. “We will be back here again in a few months. What about the possibility of reducing the size of the vessels.”

The PSC report detailing the ferry companies’ financial struggles, didn’t mention any marketing data, explained Pamela Samuel.

“The report lacked marketing data and efforts to increase ridership,” said Samuel. “Have you thought of seasonal discounts or cutting back on less popular runs. Department of Public Works should apply for more federal grants and the companies could get the subsidies in three year increments.”

While Lorelei Monsanto agreed with the fare increase, she questioned the Department of Education’s ability to pay increased fares for students and teachers.

“Education is not sitting here and we don’t know their financial situation,” said Monsanto.

DPW has ordered two new ferries to be constructed, to the tune of $7 million, explained Senator at Large Craig Barshinger.

“The ferries are in the boat yard now,” he said.

Barshinger also proposed to reintroduce legislation which would set the ferry rates by law, he added.

“In the 28th Legislature I proposed a bill to set the rate at $2 each way for adults and $1 for children and seniors,” he said. “I am willing to reintroduce that bill if there is support. Then the gap would be filled by subsidies.”

“We are missing the boat here,” said Barshinger.

The current financial reality of the V.I. government might mean DOE simply can’t afford to pay more for teachers and students to ride the ferry, explained Ira Stridiron.

“It seems that the ferry companies and the PSC have agreed to leave the government stuck with the bill,” said Stridiron. “The reality is these are difficult economic times. The government might come back and say, ‘That’s very nice that you increased fares; we can’t pay.’”

Hearing examiner McLean will continue to collect comments from the public. To share a comment with McLean, call PSC at 776-1291.