Public Stays Away from PSC Rate Hearings on Ferry Services

CRUZ BAY —  A proposed $1.25 increase on the price of ferry tickets may go through unchallenged after members of the public passed up the chance to say whether they liked it or not. Officials of the Public Services Commission held back to back public hearings on St.Thomas and St. John this week.

Nobody came.

Holding hearings is part of a mandatory rate investigations on regulated utilities and service companies operating under PSC franchise. One such investigation is now in progress for franchised ferry companies Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services of St. John.

Ferry fares for adults and commuters were raised during the last rate investigation in 2011 during a time when oil prices were spiking on the world oil market. The ferries companies struggled to keep up with operating costs, driven by high oil prices.

At the same time lawyers for VV were accusing the government of not holding up their end of the franchise agreement by securing federal transportation subsidies. At that time the public watched, listened and spoke as an appointed hearing officer weighed the reasons why VV and TSSJ deserved rate hikes.

This time there appeared to be little public interest. St. Thomas attorney Jennifer Jones waited half an hour past the scheduled start time in the Cruz Bay Legislative chambers for the public to appear. But as was the case when the hearing was held in the PSC conference room at Barbel Plaza, the public stayed away.

After that, Jones cancelled the St. John hearing. “We provided a reasonable opportunity on both islands to receive public comment and we have received none,” she said. 

Jones was appointed to conduct the ferry service rate investigation in Sept. 2015. She instructed Maria Tankenson Hodge, the lawyer representing the two companies and PSC legal counsel Boyd Sprehn to submit legal arguments for and against the proposed rate hike.

“Within 30 days of receiving those documents, then I will provide my findings of fact and conclusions of law, which would basically mean recommendations to the Public Services Commission,” Jones said.

Once the recommendations are published the public will be given another chance to share their thoughts about the investigation’s findings.

According to Varlack Ventures Sr. Vice President Delrise Varlack, the $1.25 increase would apply only to non-residential adult tickets for a one-way trip from Cruz Bay, St. John from Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.