Sept. 13, 2006 – The Public Services Commission gave the go-ahead this week for ferryboat companies to reduce their schedule between Cruz Bay, St. John and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas during the off-season, but not without putting the lawyer representing the companies through her paces.
On July 31, Claudette V. Ferron, attorney for Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures, the two companies who have a franchise agreement with the V.I. government to provide ferry service between the two islands, wrote to the PSC asking that the companies be allowed to reduce service due to the decline in passengers in September and October.
When she appeared before the commission Tuesday night, commissioner Verne David wanted to know why she had waited until July 31 to make the request. He also wanted to know if the companies had made the schedule change without formal PSC approval.
Ferron said "I believe they have," but added she was certain there had been a provisional, verbal agreement from the PSC.
When David asked who had given permission, Ferron said she wasn't sure and none of the commissioners admitted to having given approval.
On Wednesday morning, Ferron confirmed it had been PSC Chairwoman Alecia Wells who had given the verbal permission.
"She lives on St. John and travels back and forth all the time," Ferron said. "She's always talking with them."
She also said the companies sent out notification to some of the media that the service change would take place Sunday, Sept. 10.
The service has been reduced to three round trips per day at times that coincide with commuter needs: early morning, midday and afternoon.
Commissioner Donald Cole wanted to know if Ferron had data showing that ridership had in fact decreased during the off-peak months. She didn't, but PSC attorney Boyd Sprehn did.
He said the downtown-to-downtown ferries carry about 5,000 passengers a month in high season and drop to between 2,000 and 3,000 in the summer and autumn months.
David wanted to know why none of the principals of the ferryboat companies had shown up for the hearing. Ferron said they were busy preparing financial reports for the commission.
"Delrise Varlack is the only able body at the company who can do what needs to be done."
Ferron said Wednesday the ferry companies are small private companies that she felt were often treated like large corporations where the commission was concerned.
She also pointed out that they are struggling to survive, using vessels that are old and out of date and facing dramatically rising fuel costs on top of it. The ferry companies fought last year to get the first rate increase they had seen in 17 years.
But there's more to the story, Ferron said.
When the franchise with the government was established by law, the government was charged with providing subsidies. "They never had," she said Wednesday.
Furthermore, a portion of mass transit grants applied for by the Public Works Department is earmarked for the ferries. Ferron said, "They get the grant, but they don't give the money to the ferry boats."
Not only that, but she said even though the ferries are franchises they have to pay the same taxes and wharfage fees as nonregulated private companies.
Along with the downtown runs, the ferry companies provide service between Cruz Bay and Red Hook, St. Thomas hourly from 6:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
Ferron said the companies, which are small family businesses, are left to hire lobbyists to get what the government is supposed to give them.
Cole, M. Thomas Jackson, and Wells voted to approve the schedule change. Commissioners Joseph Boschulte and Raymond Williams voted no, and David abstained.
Newly appointed commissioner Sirri Hamad was absent.
From now until Oct. 30 the town-to-town ferry will leave Cruz Bay at 7:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. It will leave Charlotte Amalie at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
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