A months-long slowdown in barge service between St. Thomas and St. John has frustrated, angered and cost many people time and money, but the situation has largely returned to normal, ferry operators told a senate committee Monday.
St. John residents have been seriously delayed and inconvenienced, tourism has suffered, St. John Carnival suffered, waste management has had difficulty removing trash, police have been delayed in preparing for events and concrete haulers and construction contractors have all been been strained by reduced barge service in recent months.
The issues began in January, when the largest of the four vessels plying the route: the 129.9-foot Mister B, was seized at Enighed Pond commercial port due to owner Boyson Inc. not making loan payments. That left three barges plying the route; General II, owned by Global Marine;and Love City Car Ferries’ Captain Vic and Island Vic. Island Vic was also out of service for part of January, leaving two vessels for a while.
Then, around June 28, General II was put in dry-dock for repairs and maintenance, reducing capacity during the St. John Carnival. It returned to service July 6, V.I. Car Ferry Operators President Carmen Hedrington told the Government Services, Consumer and Veterans Affairs Committee.
And again, around July 20, Island Vic was taken out of service for maintenance, coming back into service about two weeks later, Hedrington said.
"Service was not interrupted. It was slowed down," she said when Sen. Myron Jackson asked how long the problems lasted.
Later, when asked by senators how the situation stood now, she said "currently all three barge services of three ferries are running and there are no lines, no waiting." Asked how long three barges had been back plying the route, she said the third vessel returned "last Wednesday," Aug. 17.
For a time there were long lines for cars to get on the barges. Police had to defer routine vehicle maintenance by the dealership, could not get office and cleaning materials, and had long delays getting large volumes of equipment back after the St. John Carnival, Deputy Police Chief for St. John Arlene Chalwell told the committee.
St. John Carnival had reduced turnout, too, Carnival officials said during recent budget hearings. (See: "Visa Costs Deter Carnival Entertainment, Officials tell Lawmakers," in Related Links below)
The concrete company Heavy Materials lost several batches of ready-mix concrete due to delays, according to general manager Kurt Nose.
"As a result of the disrupted barge service from June 2016 through today, Heavy Materials has been unable to consistently deliver ready-mix concrete products to the island of St. John," Nose said.
Delays have caused "trucks to return fully loaded to the plant and the product discarded," he said.
Hotels have had problems getting rid of trash, according to written testimony from the Hotel and Tourism Association. Waste Management Authority acting Executive Director Steve Aubin testified that delays limited the available barge space and delayed pickups of the filled bins at the bin sites and Susannaberg Transfer Station, causing the waste to remain in the bins for more than one day. WMA pressed down waste in the roll-off bins to make space, redirected customers to other bin sites and arranged special after-hour barge trips to take the bins, he said.
Repairs and renovations mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard caused the June and July slowdowns. No Coast Guard official appeared at the hearing, but the Coast Guard supplied written testimony saying Captain Vic failed its annual inspection on June 29 and had to be taken out of service for repairs for safety reasons.
According to the Coast Guard’s unsigned testimony, Captain Vic’s CO2 fire suppression system had not been serviced in more than two years; its bilge pump system, needed to prevent flooding, was not working and the vehicle ramp was "severely wasted with excessive fractures." The Coast Guard was aware that General II was also in dry-dock for maintenance at the time and spent several late nights trying to resolve the situation, ultimately allowing Captain Vic back into service, but with a weight restriction on its ramp. It gave the company until Sept. 1 to fix the ramp.
While there are no delays for cars, Aubin and Nose said WMA and Heavy Materials are still being affected, though less than before, because of the weight limit for Captain Vic.
Asked how the barge companies could avoid a similar situation in the future, Hedrington said they are trying to work with the V.I. Port Authority to be able to access the vehicles in port at night, after the routes are complete, for maintenance. She also suggested the V.I. government subsidize the companies, to help with maintenance, as it does the passenger ferries. Senators said that was unlikely, in the current budget crunch.
VIPA Executive Director Carlton "Ital" Dowe said they have been working with the barge companies, but said there are limits to late night work, because neighbors are affected by "banging on metal" after midnight and complain to VIPA.
Hedrington also said having another vessel available to take up the slack when one is taken out of duty for work would help. She said there is a fourth vessel in the territory "that just needs to be repaired."
The barge Roanoke, owned by Global Marine, has been out of service and under repair in Enighed Pond since before the beginning of the year.
Dowe said Enighed Pond is not meant for long-term storage and work on vessels, and that St. Thomas has only one real dry-dock facility and needs another one, endorsing a project at Stalley Bay, south of Bovoni Landfill.
No votes were taken during the information-gathering oversight hearing.
Present were: Jackson, Sens. Positive Nelson, Tregenza Roach, Janette Millin Young and Justin Harrigan. Sens. Neville James and Sammuel Sanes were absent. Non-committee members Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Jean Forde were also present.