New ferries still not carrying passengers


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ST. THOMAS - Coast Guard inspectors have begun to conduct some drills on the Cruz Bay I, a necessary step in getting the vessel - one of two new government-owned ferries - ready to begin taking passengers between St. Thomas and St. John.

The Cruz Bay I, along with the Red Hook I, have been sitting idle since they were delivered to the territory in November.

The boats were built in Louisiana and received their U.S. Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection prior to arriving on St. Thomas. However, before they can begin operating in the territory, they must pass a "new to zone" inspection.

In addition to the final Coast Guard inspections, the management contracts between the franchise operators - Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services - and the V.I. government still need to be finalized.

Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said while the inspections were done in Louisiana, when the boats came to the U.S. Virgin Islands, they passed out of one port zone and into another. That requires another set of inspections, these more specifically geared to the operator.

V.I. Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said the management contract will be executed once the final Coast Guard inspections are complete.

"At which time that operator will be ready to go into service," he said. Smalls initially said when the boats were delivered in early November that he anticipated turning them over to the franchisees in about a month.

The two new boats will belong to the V.I. government and be operated by the franchisees. The franchisees must sign a management contract and will pay a fee to lease the boats.

When asked whether money is a sticking point in getting the franchise holders on board, Smalls said: "No, absolutely not, it's a nominal fee."

Rumors have been circulating throughout the community that the franchisees are not happy about the arrangement.

"I am not aware of resisting or anything like that," Smalls said.

Smalls said last week that he was planning to meet with one of the franchise companies soon, but would not say which one.

Transportation Services General Manager Kenrick Augustus told The Daily News earlier this month that he is confident that the management contract will be executed shortly and the ferryboats will be put in service.

Delrise Varlack, general manager of Varlack Ventures, declined to comment for this story.

Smalls said he is trying to get both new boats into service at the same time. He dismissed criticism about the size of the ferries, which are smaller than the current boats owned by the two franchisees.

"This is a vessel to augment the current fleet," he said.

Smalls said the new boats can be run in off-peak times, are more fuel efficient and will cost less to operate.

The two ferries are 84-foot aluminum catamarans, each of which can carry about 204 passengers.

The Coast Guard drills the vessels and their crews must complete include an "abandon ship" exercise, a "man overboard" rescue and other safety and security drills, according to Castrodad.

The inspection will also ensure all paperwork, such as proper charts and security plans, is in order, he said.

A basic walk-through of the vessel will be done as well, to ensure nothing has changed since the inspection in Louisiana.

"They still have some documentation to turn in and complete," Castrodad said about the Cruz Bay I. "They're in the process of accomplishing what they need to."

Funded with $7.6 million in federal funds, the vessels were built by the Louisiana-based company Midship Marine Inc.

The funding for the boats - $3.25 million for each - comes from a number of federal sources. Two different earmarks from the U.S. Transportation Department coupled with a $3 million federal stimulus grant provided the money to purchase the boats.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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