The discussion at a V.I. Port Authority public hearing Wednesday night turned from raising tariffs to disability rights and access as residents advocated for a smoother and more “dignified” system for travelers when boarding or coming off the plane.
The public hearing was designed to garner public comments on a proposal by VIPA to raise parking fees at Cyril E. King Airport, along with the airline passenger lift rental fee at both airports.
According to VIPA Executive Director Carlton Dowe, the parking rates at Cyril E. King have remained stagnant for 17 years, and raising them would coincide with the opening of a new parking garage, half of which is expected to open in November for public parking. The first floor of the garage, for taxis and rental cars, would open in January 2024, with a full opening date scheduled for April 2024.
Even with the increase, Dowe said the new rates would be about 33 percent less than those charged by other parking facilities on-island. According to the new structure, the first 15 minutes would still be free, while rates within the first hour increase from $2 to $4, up to $6 for the first two hours, $8 for up to three hours and $12 for up to four hours. The daily rate would move from $10 to $20 while monthly parking jumps $100 – from $150 to $250.
Nothing for or against the change was mentioned, but residents did question rates and spaces provided for rental car companies, to which Dowe explained that a $2 per passenger, per week fee, is supposed to be assessed by each agency and remitted to VIPA. The enforcement of that has been lax, though, Dowe added, as it’s easier to crack down on companies located within the airport but more difficult to monitor those located outside that just come in to drop off and pick up passengers.
Dowe said VIPA’s enforcement team would have to be solely focused on rental car collections for that to happen but reminded residents — and viewers on the hearing’s live stream — that stateside, rental car fees are among the sources of revenue used to improve public facilities like airports and roads. At some point, if the territory is serious about bringing its ports up to par, more cooperation would be needed from both the public and vendors.
As an aside, Dowe mentioned that a total of 177 covered and uncovered parking spaces for the rental companies will be housed within the new parking garage and that two new companies, Centerline and Premium Car Rental, will soon be setting up shop at Cyril E. King.
Meanwhile, the lift rental fee is paid by the airlines, but residents speaking Wednesday night said they were concerned about how it would be passed onto the customer — and for a service that isn’t providing as much access to travelers with disabilities as it could.
Former Sen. Ruby Simmonds Esannason shared her experiences traveling with relatives who had to wait, sometimes for hours, for lift service before being able to get onto the plane. In other instances, they boarded with the food carts, which she added is difficult and undignified. Esannason suggested the use of jet bridges as an alternative, which Dowe said are included in the airports’ future plans and proposals for modernization have been submitted by a short-list of private companies who have already bid on the project.
In the meantime, Dowe said VIPA has tried to improve access for passengers with disabilities by moving from hydraulic to mechanical lifts, which are more stable and don’t break down. The three currently used by the airports are new, he added, though the movement will be toward the jet bridges, which are enclosed, moveable tunnels that extend from the airport terminal to the plane.
In terms of the tariffs, though, Dowe told attendees that the public would be given about 30 days’ notice before any changes go into effect.