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Senators Hear Concerns About Ferry Rate Hikes

Nydia Lewis (left) and Lorelei Monsanto of the St. John Unity Day Group.

If the ferry companies get their requested rate increase and the V.I. Port Authority implements a 50-cents-per-passenger fee, it will cost a St. John family of five $380 to see a movie on St. Thomas, Nydia Lewis of the St. John Unity Day Group told senators Monday at a Committee of the Whole meeting.

Lewis’ figure takes into account parking, transportation to the movies from the Red Hook ferry dock and the cost of movie tickets.

"These numbers are stunning, but it’s what St. John residents face every day," Lewis told the six senators and nearly 50 people who attended the meeting at the Legislature building on St. John.

Myrtle Barry, also of the Unity Day Group, said that just the 50 cents per trip the Port Authority plans to charge as a passenger fee means daily commuters from St. John to St. Thomas will now pay $2,713 a year to get back and forth between the islands.

Their calculations got the senators’ attention.

“The cost is prohibitive," Sen. Louis P. Hill said. “It’s not fair for people who live here to have to have so much cost.”

Sen. Sammuel Sanes, speaking in the same vein, called the fares unbelievable. He vowed to investigate how the Puerto Rican government subsidizes the ferry from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to Vieques. The fare is only $2.

Lewis pointed out that although the route across Pillsbury Sound that links Red Hook, St. Thomas, and Cruz Bay, St. John, is a mass-transit route, ferry passengers pay far more than bus passengers. An adult ticket on the ferry route is now $5, but the two ferry companies that ply that route, Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures, have asked for a $7 fare. VITRAN bus riders pay $1 a trip.

Sen. Craig Barshinger announced at the meeting that he has a bill in the hopper that will provide $1 million a year for ferry fare subsidies.

Karole Ovesen-McGregor, deputy commissioner of transportation for the Public Works Department, addressed the subsidies promised to the ferry companies under the terms of their 1987 franchise that gives them the exclusive right to operate between St. Thomas and St. John.

She said that in 2006, each of the two ferry companies received $500,000 after they asked for it. In 2008, each of the companies was eligible for $265,000 once they turned in audited financial reports. Ovesen said Varlack got the full amount, but Transportation Services only got half.

"The remaining 50 percent will be released upon a complete review of the audited financial statement," Ovesen said.

After Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve questioned why, if the ferry-boat companies were due subsidies under the terms of their franchise, they waited until 2006 to ask for them.

"Until Island Girl showed up, they were making tons of money," Sen. Shawn Michael Malone responded, referring to a ferry that transports cruise-ship passengers from St. Thomas to St. John.

Malone asked why the ferry companies were not at the meeting, but Transportation Services Manager Kenrick Augustus told reporters earlier that he hadn’t been invited. He left the meeting by the time Malone made his remarks.

Hill’s chief of staff, Colette Monroe, said at a break that not inviting the ferry companies was an oversight, but that the Unity Day Group had asked that the Public Services Commission, Public Works and the V.I. Port Authority be called to testify.

Earlier, Lorelei Monsanto of the Unity Day Group said its members requested the meeting because they had been unable to get answers from those agencies and departments.

In addition to Hill, Barshinger, Sanes, Sprauve, and Malone, Sen. Michael Thurland attended the meeting.

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