Local ferry boat companies, crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic and a slump in passengers, are begging the Bryan administration to help stave off their financial woes — which, by year’s end, could result in a 65% loss in their normal revenues and a suspension of service.
On Tuesday, representatives of Transportation Services of St. John Inc. and Varlack Ventures Inc., both of which operate between St. Thomas and St. John, made their case before the V.I. Public Services Commission.
Central to their argument is a claimed “catastrophic decrease” in revenues, a result of their operational costs — crew, fuel, insurance, etc. — going unchanged despite far fewer passengers.
Additionally, with the closure of neighboring ports, like the British Virgin Islands, local ferry operators are now deprived of alternate, once-dependable sources of revenue.
The collective loss, according to the ferry boat companies’ financial consultant Vincent Samuel, could be roughly $2.4 million if trends continue through 2020. That loss will not only prevent the ferry companies from meeting payroll and other mandatory costs but could jeopardize their role as a critical “lifeline” between St. Thomas and St. John.
“Ferry boats provide not merely a convenience or even a valued service to the community but a critical and plainly essential function allowing the island of St. John to remain connected with the capital island of St. Thomas,” wrote St. Thomas attorney Maria Hodge in a Sept. 15 letter to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.
Hodge, who represents the ferry boat companies, penned the letter to apprise the governor of the situation and to urge him to supply more subsidies.
While Bryan did issue $200,000 subsidies to the ferry boat companies in the spring, Hodge insisted the single payment would not carry the companies through the year.
She added that multiple requests to the administration in the five months since that first payment have been ignored.
“For reasons that we cannot explain, correspondence to the commissioner of Public Works and other top officials of your administration about this increasingly urgent matter, over the last five months, have gone unanswered, and indeed, unacknowledged,” Hodge wrote.
Delrise Varlack of Varlack Ventures, who appeared before the PSC on Tuesday, said her company is now reaching a breaking point.
“We are really operating at our own detriment,” she said. “It’s now a [question] as to whether we’ll continue this operation operating at a loss or we’re going to just discontinue.”
PSC Board Chairman David Hughes said he will take action on the matter.
“I will actually elevate this personally to the governor,” he said. “There are very few things that are certain in the Virgin Islands, but I think we can all agree that ferries are going to run between St. John and St. Thomas — they have to. There’s not an option that says we don’t have ferry boats running.”
Hughes said Varlack has filed with the PSC its 2018 and 2019 audited financial statements in order to be eligible for federal funding. He also acknowledged Hodge’s request to inquire about $4.1 million in funds recently allocated by the U.S. Department of Transportation to the Public Works Department and VITRAN.
Varlack operates VITRAN vessels.
“I’m just going to speculate that [the ferry boat companies] are not getting a lot of help from this governor or this administration in terms of accessing federal funding, which I just find amazing,” Hughes said.
Government House spokesman Richard Motta Jr. said he was not aware of any subsidies in the pipeline for the ferry boat companies, but insisted the administration has an “open mind.”
“We know that folks out there are hurting,” he said. “The governor says quite often that this is a three-legged stool that we’re trying to balance, with public health first and foremost, then the economy and the individual rights of Virgin Islands residents.
“It’s a balancing act and we’re trying to do our best and remain open-minded to how we can keep everyone happy in this situation as we move forward.”