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PSC Scolds Ferry Owners in Special Meeting

May 19, 2008 — Ending on a conciliatory note, a special public hearing of the Public Services Commission on reduced ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John focused on legal interpretation of the PSC's rules and regulations.
The PSC organized the meeting on St. John after the ferry franchisees sent out a news release saying they would discontinue a 5:30 a.m. run that had ferried passengers for two years. (See "PSC Calls Special Public Meeting on Early-Morning Ferry Run.") The news came after a May 8 ruling by the PSC that the-early morning runs must continue. (See "Ferry Operators Must Bring 5:30 a.m. Run Back, PSC Rules.")
"There was an apparent misunderstanding of the order," said PSC Chairman Joseph Boschulte. "We felt it was important that we have another face to face. We understand that they have continued to run the 5:30 a.m. run."
The ferry companies added the runs in response to a need for workers to commute from St. Thomas to a large construction project on St. John, according to Kendrick Augustus, general manager of Transportation Services of St. John, one of the joint ferry franchise holders. The companies added the runs at their own discretion, he told the commission. When ridership fell off, the companies made a decision to eliminate the runs.
"There is a process in place for ferry boats to come back and show data that supports what they are asking," Boschulte said. "We are required to make decisions based on what we know. They have the opportunity to come and tell us when they are not profitable. Not everybody agrees, but it is fair."
Augustus responded, "We decided to follow your ruling, but we are filing a protest. We don’t believe we should be doing a run that we took on voluntarily."
The ferry operators said they understood PSC rules to mean they could add non-scheduled runs and take them away at their discretion.
Commissioner M. Thomas Jackson disagreed.
"How do you consider a run that is two years temporary?" he said.
The commissioners scolded the ferry companies for flouting the PSC's authority by sending out the news release instead of petitioning the PSC to reconsider the decision.
"Approach us — we are reasonable people here," Jackson said. "Do not follow willy-nilly advice — you are going to get in trouble like that."
The commissioners asked the ferry operators which runs could be removed from the schedule.
"We have to strike that balance between the utility and the ferry rider," Jackson said.
Several times Augustus expressed concern that the ferries are being driven to bankruptcy with requirements for increased service at a time of skyrocketing fuel prices.
"My agenda is to make sure that there is an equal balance for you to make a profit and for the people who are traveling back and forth to work," Jackson said.
Commissioners attending Monday's meeting included:Boschulte, Cole,Verne C. David, Jackson and Alecia Wells. Keithley R. Joseph, the PSC's executive director was also in attendance. Commissioner Sirri Hamad was absent, along with ex-officio commissioners Basil Ottley and Juan Figueroa-Serville, who was attending a Senate meeting. For more information about the PSC's relationship to the ferries, click here.
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