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Island Lynx Ferry Seeks V.I. Government Loan to Stay Afloat

Oct. 27, 2006 — The partners of Island Lynx Ferry say they could be back in business in three days if the V.I. government comes through with a $250,000 loan.
During a press conference Friday at the ferry companys offices in Gallows Bay, majority shareholder Robert C. Siebengartner said his company has talked to the V.I. Public Finance Authority (PFA) about getting the loan so that its ferryboat, Royal Miss Belmar, can continue to transport passengers between St. Croix and St. Thomas.
Island Lynx has been out of operation since Sept. 22 because the company fell behind in its payments of port fees to the V.I. Port Authority (VIPA), and leasing fees to the company that owns the ferryboat.
Island Lynx started operating between St. Croix and St. Thomas on March 8, 2006. According to Siebengartner, the ferry has made 536 one-way trips between the two islands and has carried more than 26,000 passengers in its six-month existence.
Currently, Royal Miss Belmar is docked in Tortola, B.V.I. undergoing its 100,000-mile checkup, said Siebengartner. The owners told Siebengartner and his partner, attorney Kevin Rames, that when Island Lynx catches up on the lease payments, Royal Miss Belmar would be ready to hit the high seas.
"But we have to show them the money, not just promises," said Siebengartner.
Compounding the financial problems, Island Lynx also owes VIPA $40,000 in port fees, and $5,000 for rental of the land where the Island Lynx office is located.
Last week, VIPA's board of directors voted unanimously to start eviction proceedings on Island Lynx. Rames said Friday that the company would fight the order by paying the money.
To do that, the Island Lynx partners met with Gov. Charles Turnbull Thursday, who is PFA board chairman. Island Lynx officials proposed the PFA grant a $250,00 soft loan to the ferry company. According to Rames, a soft loan does not use hard assets as collateral.
Siebengartner said the governor was receptive to the idea but said that the V.I. Legislature would have to give its approval.
Both Rames and Siebengartner claim that most senators are on their side. Island Lynx could also be rescued by the Legislature in another way: The bailout money has been included in the omnibus bill that has not yet been voted on. The Legislature wont vote on the bill until the end of November, though, and Siebengartner said by then it would be too late to save the company.
Siebengartner said that if the loan is granted, Island Lynx could become financially stable and even show a profit. He said once all the bills are paid off, the owner of Royal Miss Belmar would lower the lease rates, which would save money. Also, the price of fuel has decreased during the past month, and that will save money for Island Lynx.
"But this is not a gold mine," warned Siebengartner. "We maybe could make $175,000 in profit."
Both Rames and Siebengartner stressed that to really make Island Lynx viable, VIPA has to give the company concessions on the port fees. Currently, Island Lynx is charged $2.85 per passenger in port fees, while the ferries operating between St. Thomas and St. John are charged 25 cents per passenger in port fees. Rames said it is unfair to Island Lynx.
He said the St. Thomas-St. John ferries only travel 15 minutes between islands, while it takes Royal Miss Belmar 90 minutes to go from St. Croix to St. Thomas, which increases the fuel costs.
"What is the rationale for this?" asked Rames. "I see it as a discriminatory tariff, and once again, St. Croix gets the short end of the stick."
Siebengartner sees lowering the port fees as "the wild card," in getting Island Lynx back on its financial feet.
"It will help a lot. I hope they lower the fees," said Siebengartner.
The Source tried to contact VIPA Executive Director Darlin Brin and other VIPA board members for comment, but calls were not returned.
Rames said that when Island Lynx stopped operations it was "a real tragedy." Rames — who compared the ferry's one-way rate of $37 [$78 roundtrip, according to their website] to the seaplane's $127 roundtrip fare — said the year-round ferry service opened up travel between St. Croix and St. Thomas and was a real boon to V.I. residents. He also noted that Island Lynx created 12 new jobs for the island, while adding $750,000 to the local economy. "This is a credible company," Rames added.
Siebengartner said that if the loan is approved, the Royal Miss Belmar could start shuttling passengers in three days. "We are ready to go," said Siebengartner.
Even if the PFA and the Legislature agree to loan Island Lynx $250,000, the company will face another battle. At the same meeting where eviction proceedings against Island Lynx were agreed to, the VIPA board heard a proposal from Boston Ferry to start year-round ferry service between St. Croix and St. Thomas.
Before Island Lynx went into operation, Boston Ferry ran a ferry between St. Croix and St. Thomas during the busy tourist season. Boston Ferry officials told the VIPA board last week they could operate year-round if the board gave them an exclusive five-year contract. The board has not made a decision on the proposal, and several board members in the past have expressed reluctance to giving any ferry company an exclusive contract.
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