St. John Tradewinds News

No. 49 “Virgin Island Ferries Sit Unused for Nearly a Year”

$7.6 Million St. John VITRAN Ferries No. 49 On Washington Wastebook Boondoggle List


Both new ferries have been in service since late October.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — St. John may be the top tourist destination, but the long-idled VITRAN St. John ferries only made No. 49 in the 2014 Washington, D.C.,“Wastebook 2014,” an annual report of the Top 100 examples of wasteful federal government spending compiled by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D., Republican Senator of Oklahoma.

“For residents and visitors of the Virgin Islands (V.I.), reliable ferries that travel from island to island are a necessity,” the listing of the dubious designation begins. “Yet, after spending millions for two ferries to transport passengers between two islands, the vessels have sat largely unused in 2014.”    

“Purchasing the new ships was part of a plan by Virgin Islands government officials to upgrade the aging ferries that make the two-mile trip back and forth each day between the islands of St. Thomas and St. John,” the Wastebook  report explained. “With $7.6 million in federal funding, they were able in 2014 to purchase two new vessels to upgrade the existing fleet — the Cruz Bay I and the Red Hook I.”    

“When the plan was first announced, local officials on the Virgin Islands estimated they could buy two ‘300-passenger ferry boats [that] cost between $2 million to $2.5 million,’” the report continued. “To help fund the purchases, the federal government awarded several federal grants and earmarks since 2007 to make the upgrades, including the biggest portion — $3 million — from the 2009 stimulus legislation.”

“The federal stimulus award was not without controversy, however,” the report added. “Elected officials in Washington State questioned why their state, with the largest ferry network in the nation, was shut out from an early round of stimulus funding while millions went to the Virgin Islands. Federal officials responded by stating the urgency of the need — a point which the island government seems to have missed.”

“From the start, the plan to purchase the ferries was itself beset by problems,” the report continued. “First, cost overruns for the project saw expenses soar and the final purchase price was $3.25 million each for vessels that could carry around 200 people — nearly 100 fewer than originally estimated.”

“Next, though the ferries were acquired in November 2013, nearly a year has passed without the ships being put into permanent use,” according to the report, which is issued annually. “The ships were supposed to be operational by the end of 2013, but insurance problems prevented that from happening“

“Then in January, V.I. Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said the ferries should be ready to go by the end of February,” according to the full-page story in Wastebook 2014. “However, delays in scheduling Coast Guard inspections pushed back the date they would be ready. The inspections were not completed until June and the ferries were finally launched (sic.) in early July.”

“After only a month in operation, however, the ferries were once again taken out of service and docked in Cruz Bay since early August. Commissioner Smalls explained in early September that legal issues with contractors were to blame and that the vessels would be back up and running ‘within the next few days.’ As the photos below demonstrate, though, the ferries remained docked nearly two weeks later.”

“While the ships are in good working order, according to Smalls, there is no telling when they’ll be reinstated,” the report concluded.

The impending listing in Wastebook may have had something to do with the de Jongh administration’s stepped-up efforts in early October when Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls assured the public the ferries would be in regular service before the end of October — after some overdue legislated government funding was found for the ferry companies.

The authors of the creatively-written and -illustrated annual list by the renowned critic of wasteful federal spending, however, did resist the temptation to employ the obvious designation “ferries to nowhere” — recalling one of the most infamous of its former designees — the “bridge to nowhere,” an expensive bridge project in Alaska which headlined a previous Wastebook list.

The Washington wags would have been caught unawares.   

Everyone knows the V.I. has long had its own “bridge to nowhere” — the federally-funded and never-connected bridge over the ghutt at the intersection in Nadir on St. Thomas.