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Monday, January 30, 2023



Dec. 1, 2001 – Noting that St. John residents were "vocally" opposed to paying ferry fares in addition to barge fares for a barge trip across Pillsbury Sound, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed a bill with that provision on Saturday.
"Hopefully, that's the end to it," St. John resident Elissa Runyon said.
In addition to mandating that everyone in a vehicle aboard a barge buy a ferry ticket, the bill also extended the ferry companies' exclusive franchise to 50 years from 30 and gave extensive tax benefits to the two firms — Transportation Services of St. John and Varlack Ventures.
"While I support the idea of assisting our local companies in their business ventures, particularly when they are providing an essential public service, the granting of 100 percent tax exemptions for 35 years is fiscally irresponsible," the governor wrote in his letter to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd explaining the veto.
Turnbull noted that an Economic Development Authority program "grants tax exemptions to new businesses as a means of attracting them to the territory, to create additional jobs and to stimulate the economy." Both ferry firms have been in business for decades; the franchises took effect in 1986.
The governor said the bill went too far in both the terms and the benefits the Legislature sought to confer by decree. He noted that the ferry companies, meanwhile, are before the Public Services Commission seeking permission to reduce services, "and it is predicted that the rate investigation mandated will likely result in increased rates."
He chastised the senators for extending the franchises, too, with "no meaningful opportunities for public input, competition, performance criteria or other safeguards." He said the Senate action was irresponsible and, at a minimum, constituted an infringement on the powers of the executive branch.
Rather, he said, such agencies as the PSC and the EDA should explore franchise extension and tax exemption issues. The PSC in 1998, in the face of vocal opposition from St. John residents, backed down on a plan to allow two persons per barged vehicle to ride for free.
Some St. John residents agreed with the governor on the need for public input on the issue. Craig Barshinger said he and several others opposed to barge riders paying any ferry fares expect to hold a public forum within a few weeks to discuss the matter. He was among a group of St. John residents who spent Friday and Saturday campaigning to convince Turnbull to veto the bill.
Sen. Roosevelt David, a sponsor of the measure, said the bill does need reworking and that he would not seek to override the veto. He said it would be fairer to allow the driver and one passenger to ride in their vehicle for the price of the barge fare. "We have a responsibility to local businesses to help them stay in business and move ahead," he said. "There has to be some way to protect local people."
Barshinger, however, said "splitting the difference" is still unfair to barge customers. "The bill does not address the needs of many," he said, "but, rather, just the few."
David disagreed with the contention of some that having a choice between taking the ferry and taking the barge constitutes free-market competition. He said there is already competition — between the two ferry companies. There also is competition among the three barge companies offering service between Red Hook and Cruz Bay.
Citing the ferry companies' contention that they are losing $500,000 a year in fares to people who ride aboard vehicles being barged, David said legislation is not the way to prevent such an occurrence. He said it would be better for the ferry and barge firms to work out a compromise.
Liburd, the bill's prime sponsor, could not be reached for comment Saturday evening.
Barge business has increased manyfold from the mid-1990s, while customer costs have gone down. Fares were as high as $50 round trip until Republic Barge Service arrived in 1998, followed by Tuglife, also called Roanoke, in 1999, with lower rates. Competition had dropped the fares to $25 until the Port Authority added a $2 surcharge earlier this year. Weighed against the cost of land transportation by taxi or safari on St. Thomas for those traveling from St. John by ferry, the rates have made "driving over" even more affordable.

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