Ferryboat Operators Seeking Major Fare Increase Again

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Ferry tickets may increase another $1.

Inter-island ferry fares could rise at least another dollar to cover fuel costs alone as ferryboat operators push for action on their four-month old request to the Public Services Commission for help with sharply rising fuel prices.

The world-wide fuel crisis is impacting the St. Thomas-St. John ferry rates even as the franchised ferryboat companies continue their battle of words with the V.I. Public Services Commission over schedule changes, according to the attorney for Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures.

“Back when we initially asked in February we were looking for a modest 50 cents,” Attorney Claudette Ferron said of the fuel surcharge request filed by the companies which have a joint operating agreement for St. Thomas-St. John ferry service. “The ferryboat operators are looking for minimally a dollar (for fuel costs) between now and when a rate decision is made.”

“The evidence is clear; there has been a dramatic increase,” the attorney said of the pressures of fuel price increases. “It’s huge. It’s as huge for us as it is for WAPA.”

“The ferries are the second largest fuel consumers in the territory after WAPA,” Ferron continued. “It has not been addressed. There has to be some relief — it’s piling up.”

HOVENSA Rates Rise Dramatically
While the ferryboat operators’ attorney did not have exact information on fuel price increases, the wholesale price of diesel fuel from the HOVENSA refinery on St. Croix was set at $3.585 as of June 12 this year, up from $2.175 in June 2007, according to recent published reports.

“The fuel suppliers are no longer accepting credit,” Ferron added. “The ferryboat operators have to pay as they order.”

The PSC on Tuesday, June 10, granted WAPA a 22.9 percent increase in residential electrical rates and a 14.6 percent increase for water. WAPA had requested hikes of 40 percent for electricity and 30 percent for water.

“We are hoping the PSC will apply the same attention to the plight of the ferryboat operators that they recently applied to WAPA,” Ferron said.

Schedule Changes Still Sought
Like an inter-island ferryboat ride on rolling swells, fares may be going up as scheduled service goes down on the St. Thomas-St. John route.

The ferry companies are formally pursuing reductions in the current schedule due to “a dramatic decrease in St. John construction related ridership, and the crash of the real estate market, this year,” the ferryboat operators’ legal counsel wrote in a June 3 letter to the PSC executive director Keithley Joseph.

At the close of a 14-page response to Joseph’s May 14 “order” to the ferry companies to maintain their current schedules, Ferron reiterated the financial concerns of the ferryboat operators and asked for PSC action on a pending fare increase to recover increasing fuel costs and schedule changes.

“It will also give the PSC and its staff time to review the Ferryboat Operators’ Fuel Surcharge request (pending unaddressed for over three (3) months now), and across the board ‘Regular and Seasonal Schedule’ revision, that must be addressed,” Ferron continued in the letter.

Temporary Runs Voluntarily Added
“The ‘temporary’ runs were voluntarily added in response to a significant increase in ridership, due to construction, and related service industry employment, on St. John,” the attorney continued. “The Ferryboat Operators always intended to eliminate these ‘temporary’ runs, when ridership dropped off, as it has dramatically this year.”

The additional runs were in place when the PSC Rate Investigation was initiated in December 2007, Ferron conceded.

“However, ridership was declining then, and there has been a dramatic decrease in St. John construction related ridership, and the crash of the real estate market, this year,” Ferron continued.

“These additional runs were voluntarily (without any order from the PSC) added a little over two (2) years ago, by the Ferryboat Operators, without prior notice, approval or even knowledge, of the PSC, at the sole discretion of the Ferryboat Operators,” the attorney wrote the PSC, adding “there appears to be no legally valid written PSC order, lawfully served on the Ferryboat Operators.”

Temporary Runs Continue
“… there are no legal grounds obligating the Ferryboat Operators to continue the ‘temporary’ 5:30 a.m. run from Red Hook to Cruz Bay, or any other non-PSC scheduled ‘temporary’ run,” Ferron reiterated in her letter to the PSC’s Joseph.

“However, out of their unwavering 50-year commitment, to the people of the Virgin Islands, the Ferryboat Operators, have decided to continue the run, ‘temporarily’,” Ferron wrote. “The ‘temporary’ continuation of the 5:30 a.m., run will avoid any further disruption, or confusion, for the public.”

PSC officials could not be reached for comment on the status of the ferryboat operators’ pending requests.