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PSC Approves Plan to Beef Up Security for Docks, Ferries

June 21, 2007 — An interagency plan to bump up ferry security at Red Hook, Cruz Bay and Charlotte Amalie Harbor got the thumbs up Thursday from the Public Services Commission.
The plan is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the PSC, Police Department, Port Authority and ferryboat operators Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services of St. John, which have the St. Thomas-to-St. John ferry franchise. The PSC initiated talks with the operators because of customer complaints about raucous and threatening behavior at the ferry docks and unannounced ferry delays and cancellations, said PSC General Counsel Tanisha Bailey-Roka.
“There will be zero tolerance for any unruly or disorderly passengers,” Bailey-Roka said. “We’ve had complaints of persons cutting in line, creating an unsafe environment.”
After the meeting, Commissioner M. Thomas Jackson said the PSC had received numerous phone calls complaining about groups of construction workers riding the ferry back to St. Thomas after work who literally shoved tourists and other ferry riders out of their way, cut in line and forced those who arrived before them to miss the ferry. This threatening behavior, along with incidents of drunken belligerence, led to calls for more security.
Each of the entities has agreed to several measures to address these issues, according to the MOU.
The Port Authority has purportedly agreed to provide two uniformed, armed guards with arrest powers, one at the Red Hook ferry dock from 6:30 to 8 a.m. and another at the Cruz Bay dock from 1:45 to 5 p.m. They are also to allow the ferry companies to display a temporary sign on the Charlotte Amalie downtown dock notifying the public of any ferry delays or cancellations.
The Police Department is to provide a uniformed officer at Red Hook and Cruz Bay docks, when needed, to supplement Port Authority security, and enforce a policy of zero tolerance for any disturbances, illegal activity or unruly passengers.
Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services of St. John, the two ferry franchise holders, are to notify the media and place a large sign at the Charlotte Amalie downtown dock “in a timely manner” whenever there is a delay or cancellation.
The ferry companies, along with the police and the Port Authority, agree to submit timely reports to the PSC of any incident affecting passenger safety.
“They are to monitor and report on safety, particularly while passengers are boarding, on the gangway, while taking their seats and stowing their luggage,” Bailey-Roka said.
The MOU was approved with the explicit caveat that it may be subject to change to accommodate feedback from the participating agencies.
The PSC also gave temporary approval to rates and schedules for the new St. Croix-St. Thomas ferry franchisee, V.I. Sea Trans. The company has already begun servicing the route since the Legislature recently gave it the formal franchise. The official franchise had not taken effect as of the PSC’s monthly meeting in May. Approval was given for 90 days, after which the PSC will review the company.
Captain Marjorie Smith of V.I. Sea Trans appeared before the commission to testify about the rates and schedule and to ask the PSC to set the amount of the government’s subsidy to the ferry service. By law, the government financially assists the ferry companies in acquiring and maintaining vessels and subsidizes ferry rates. The funding comes primarily from the Federal Transportation Administration and is distributed through Public Works.
“All ferry routes are subsidized,” Smith said. “They are not profitable otherwise …. The bottom line is, to finance this route right now, you’re looking at in the neighborhood of $500,000 a year. Newport, Rhode Island, has about the same 38- to 40-mile journey, and they are subsidized at $400,000 a year, even though they only run May to October.”
Asked about the status of funding through Public Works, Smith said V.I. Sea Trans would not receive funding in the immediate future.
“We conferred with Public Works Commissioner (Darryl) Smalls,” Smith said. “But we missed the window this cycle because my franchise was still being processed.”
Smith said they would now seek interim funding from private banks.
“What I need from the government at the moment is a set rate for what the annual subsidy will be,” Smith said. “The bank will then look more favorably on the loan.”
Commissioner Donald G. Cole said the PSC could not set the subsidy.
“You need something from the central government in the budget process coming up,” he said. “We can’t do that here. It has to be the Legislature. The Legislature controls the purse strings.”
Bailey-Roka called for further study.
“I am not averse to a recommendation of a subsidy,” she said. “But I hesitate to commit us to that today. I would like to research it further, because this situation with Sea Trans is a new animal for us.”
Cole urged Smith to contact both the Legislature and Public Works quickly to ensure the matter gets on the agenda.
“The budget hearings are coming right up,” Cole said. “Send a letter to Sen. (Terrence) Nelson or pay him a visit and let it be known clearly what you say you need to be part of the budget. Also speak to Smalls. The whole thing depends on funding, so you have to get to them as quickly as possible.”
In other business, two camps butted heads over safety and reliability of service. On one side were the PSC commissioners and Claudette Ferron, attorney for Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services of St. John, arguing with the ferry companies on the St. Thomas/St. John route. Repeating many aspects of their last several encounters, the PSC castigated Ferron for her client’s alleged unreliable service and safety problems. (See "Ferry Companies Still Losing Money Despite Gains, Representatives Tell PSC.") Ferron responded that her clients needed a substantial subsidy to help purchase new vessels.
“You can’t get blood from a stone,” Ferron said. “The ships have outlived their useful life.
We have yet to receive money from Public Works, and all the other departments that are supposed to be funneling these federal funds. We are doing all we can do.”
“Several months ago we had a … rate increase,” said Commissioner Joseph B. Boschulte. “Since then, we have not had an increase in service. Right now (one of the ferries) is not even running. And we still haven’t received the financial information we asked for. If they cannot run the ferries efficiently, maybe they shouldn’t run them.”
After the meeting, Commissioner Jackson said he believed the ferries may be in need of replacement, but the companies were culpable for not planning for that predictable inevitability years ago.
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