Despite declining gas prices, the companies which run the St. John to St. Thomas ferry boats — under an exclusive government franchise — continue to bleed money, Public Services Commission officials were told at a Monday evening, November 17, rate investigation hearing at the St. John Legislature building.
Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services of St. John Inc. have been operating in the red for years, the companies’ attorney Claudette Ferron told PSC hearing examiner Natalie Nelson Tang How.
While the companies have received more than $700,000 in local government funds over the past two years, they have never received federal funds, Ferron explained.
“This is public transportation which is the responsibility of the Virgin Islands government,” she said. “The government promised to purchase the vessels and the companies would operate the vessels. Instead, these private families have been forced to use their own equipment for decades.”
“Despite the fact that the ferries were designated mass transit in 1987, with millions of federal funds coming into the territory, the ferry operators have received not one single penny,” said Ferron.
On the other side, commuters have seen their fares steadily increase over the past several months — including a $1.10 fuel surcharge — with commuters and seniors taking the biggest hit.
“The rise in the cost of transportation has hit me in my pocketbook,” said Sheriann Francis. “The additional $1.10 fuel surcharge raises the price of a commuter book from $60 to $82. That’s an additional $1,968 a year.”
St. John residents who work on St. Thomas have no choice but to pay the fare, Francis added.
“We are forced to pay this fare — there is no alternative,” she said. “The transportation is no longer affordable.”
With the $1.10 fuel surcharge, seniors have watched their fares increase from $1.25 to $2.35 each way.
“Senior citizens are being charged almost an 100 percent increase in the fares,” said Jerry Runyon, American Legion Post #131 commander. “That is quite a burden on our seniors. They have been hit the hardest.”
To help improve customer service, Department of Tourism officials will train employees free of charge, DOT Assistant Commissioner Monique Sibilly-Hodge explained.
“To remain competitive as a destination, we must address the concerns of our cruise partners, airline industry and locals and visitors concerning customer service within the tourism industry,” said Sibilly-Hodge. “Department of Tourism has greeters at seaports and airports and within two weeks we’ll have greeters in St. John as well.”
“They are all professionally trained in customer care and I would like to offer that to training to the ferry boat employees,” Sibilly-Hodge continued. “We would train, free of charge and on a consistent basis. We’re sure we can all make a difference in this industry.”
Since the ferries are supported by public funds, residents have the right to expect good service, Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Kenrick Robertson told officials in his testimony.
“This is a service to the public which is subsidized by public funds,” said Roberston. “The public has the right to expect a high level of customer service. The public is not getting a good enough return on its investment.”
Ferry company officials maintained they need government funds to keep the boats running, according to Delrise Varlack, principal of Varlack Ventures.
“The cost of operating the ferries have way exceeded our revenues,” said Varlack. “It’s become virtually impossible.”
Tong How will compile findings and present them to the PSC board in January, after which the board will host a public hearing.