The Maritime Transportation Authority will extend for another year its contract with Puerto Rico Fast Ferries to provide service between Puerto Rico and its island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
However, the contract will be modified, as the government will commission the private operator for three vessels, rather than the current four, for $10 million, Mara Pérez, executive director of the MTA said in an interview on the “En Una Hora” radio show on 11Q 1140 AM, in which News is my Business participates.
The contract that expires this month was for $15 million, for four vessels: the Schoodic Explorer (149 passengers), the Big Cat (377 passengers), the Mr. Evan (77 passengers, 16 vehicles) and the Mr. Cade (68 passengers, 16 vehicles). Under the new terms, the latter two ferries will be replaced by the Mason, which has the capacity for between 68 and 71 passengers, 18 vehicles, heavy cargo trucks and has its own ramp.
Those three ferries will join the MTA’s fleet of commuter boats: the Isleño and Cayo Largo, which are already in service. A third vessel, the 600-passenger Cayo Blanco, could be added to the rotation if it passes inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard today, she said.
“If the Coast Guard identifies problems, then we have to send it back for repairs, and that’s not as easy as people think,” Pérez said, explaining that Puerto Rico currently has no dry dock repair facilities so all ships have to be sent to St. Thomas or Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
The MTA has a maintenance facility in the San Juan Bay, which is inoperant. The agency is seeking federal funds to purchase a power lift to do repair work there, she said.
The one-year extension will cover the routes between Puerto Rico and the island municipalities while the MTA closes on the public-private partnership it is currently negotiating, she said.
Last month, this media outlet reported exclusively that the MTA had allegedly selected HMS Ferries Inc., based in Bainbridge Island, Washington, for the contract. Ultimately, the private operator that is chosen will work alongside the MTA to run the ferry service and give continuity to infrastructure improvements, among other tasks, she said.
“We’re working on the final details and should have a signed contract by late October or early November,” she said. “Then we can transition the operation, a process that could take a year to complete. Future investments would be split 50/50.
The extension with Puerto Rico Fast Ferries should cover the transition period “and provide uninterrupted service,” she said.
‘All of the ferries were in lousy conditions’
The MTA is responsible for a ferry service that has been erratic and under fire for decades for stranding passengers and having to consistently sideline broken-down boats. Another constant complaint from locals and tourists is the inability to guarantee seats on the ferries, even with tickets in hand.
Pérez took over the post in February 2019, when she said, “all of the ferries were in lousy conditions and had not received maintenance, something that has to be done every year.”
“We had one vessel that worked, which is why we signed the original contract with Puerto Rico Fast Ferries. Four of the ships were then taken in to get maintenance and have the necessary repairs made, so we could eventually have a fleet of seven ferries available for the Vieques and Culebra routes,” she said in the radio interview.
At the time, she said the ships that were taken to dry docks were the Isleño, the Santa María, the Cayo Blanco and Cayo Largo, which is back in the rotation.
“Slowly but surely we’re completing the repair work on our ships so that we can restore our fleet,” she said.
Another problem she found upon taking office was a red flag by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency related to the new ferry dock in Ceiba.
“The EPA stated construction had been done incorrectly, so we’re still working on stabilizing the land and doing the mitigation work the EPA ordered,” she said. “As soon as we’re done with that process, which has been costly, we’ll start construction and procurement.”
Up until late last year, the ferry service connecting Puerto Rico to Vieques and Culebra ran out of Fajardo. However, the structure reportedly sustained significant damage from Hurricane María and had to be closed down.
The move to a terminal at Ceiba’s former Roosevelt Roads Naval Base has been highly criticized by residents of both islands, as well as municipal officials.