While Ferry Companies Raise Fees, Commuters Complain of Poor Service

Varlack Ventures’ Venture Pride passenger ferry, docked in Cruz Bay.

A second temporary increase to ferry fees was implemented on Thursday, Jan. 19, by the Public Service Commission (PSC), while residents continued to complain about poor customer service, and ferries being canceled without notice.

A St. Thomas resident who works on St. John, and rides the ferries daily, said she did not understand how the ferry companies can charge higher rates without offering better customer service.

“Service as a whole is just pretty much nonchalant,” she said. “They don’t really care about the concept of customer service. It’s not a known fact there at all.”

Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services, the two ferry companies with exclusive rights to the St. Thomas-St. John route, say they are operating at a loss due to increased fuel costs.

The PSC appointed accountant Roy Jackson as a hearing examiner, to conduct a rate investigation, and recommend new rates.

Relief for Ferry Companies
In August, a temporary fuel surcharge of $1 for adult and commuter fares, and 50 cents for children and senior citizens, was implemented to relieve the ferry companies, while the PSC worked to determine how much of a permanent fare increase to allow.

The temporary fuel charge ended Jan. 19, with the implementation of a temporary fare structure, which will begin Feb. 1 and will run for 60 days.

Under the most recent rate hike, adults will pay $5, commuters will pay $2.50, seniors 62 years of age or older will pay $1.25 and children under 12 will pay $1, to travel between Red Hook and Cruz Bay.

For travel between Charlotte Amalie and Cruz Bay, adults will pay $11.50, commuters will pay $6.50, seniors will pay $5 and children will pay $3.

Each piece of checked baggage will cost $3.

Jackson recommended the most recent increase, “while the two ferryboat companies each conduct an independent review of the cash management procedures,” said PSC Chairwoman Alecia Wells.

The commission agreed to the increase, she said, “because the commission felt that immediate fare relief was justified, but only for a period of 60 days, to enable the review of the cash management procedures to be completed, and a more complete recommendation to be submitted by the hearing examiner.”

Better Service for Higher Fees
Better customer service is necessary in light of a fee increase, according to the St. Thomas resident, who said that she has seen friends of ferry employees gain access to ferry boats that she was told were full.

The resident questioned a security guard after one incident, when she was standing at the front of the line, and she was told that the boat was full and that she’d have to wait for the next one.

“They had cut off people already, because the boat was full,” she said. “Somebody came running from back by the Subway, and went through and onto the boat, and I confronted the security guard. He said, ‘you don’t have a right to question me; I don’t have to answer any of your questions.’”

Tourists are sometimes affected by the poor service, she said.

“I’ve been in line when there were a couple of tourists trying to get on a full ferry,” she said. “They said that they really had to get on the boat because they were going to miss their flight, and the security guard just said, ‘well, the boat’s full.’”

Improved Service to Come
Better service is being addressed, said Wells.

“The overall cleanliness of the ferries, training of the workers and public address systems for departures and cancellations have been, and are being, addressed and closely scrutinized,” she said.

As a condition of the temporary rate hike, Jackson will choose an independent consultant, to observe the ferry companies’ management practices for 30 days.