ST. THOMAS - New V.I. Port Authority fees will support King Airport infrastructure improvements aiming to protect the future of territory tourism.
"We make our living at this airport," Carlton Dowe, the authority's executive director, said Tuesday night during a meeting explaining the new board-approved fees to independent taxi, limousine and tour operators using the airport.
"Let's flip a page," he said. "Let's see if we can do this."
Independent taxis the Port Authority registers and approves to operate at the airport starting Sept. 1 will pay $10 a day to pick up passengers, and limosine drivers will pay $20 to access general aviation, a cost that doesn't cover access to the airport in the same day.
The money collected will go toward Dowe's vision to polish up the St. Thomas entry point, which he said is bursting at the seams.
The airport was built to accommodate 300,000 visitors and last year 720,000 landed on the airport's runway.
"That poses a challenge for us," Dowe said. "To keep order, things have to be paid for. We are trying to accommodate all this in the same footprint. Everyone who uses this facility has to participate."
Everyone from hotels with shuttle agreements to TSA - the Transportation Security Administration - to the rental car companies is contributing, he said.
The latter will begin to pay a $2 facility charge starting Oct. 1 that Dowe said will enable the Port Authority to move forward with a parking deck.
"This is going to benefit every user of the facility," said Dowe.
He said some of the car rental companies' fees also are going towards refurbishing the customer service rental area.
"This money will uplift and enhance the car rental experience," Dowe said.
In addition to Tuesday's meetings with the independent transportation providers and the rental car companies, Dowe said he recently met with American Airlines regional representatives and had a similar conversation.
"They brought challenges to our attention," he said. "Now we will prepare for winter with more optimism."
In preparation, the airport purchased a third passenger lift for $100,000 to help physically challenged passengers, senior citizens or other passengers with special needs.
The lifts were only used a few times a year, but now they are being put to use upwards of seven times daily, Dowe said. The investment prevents flight delays, which can leave a poor impression on tourists and ultimately impact the entire travel system, he said.
"We are no longer a single tourist destination, and with Cuba about to open up, we need to invest in our community," said Al Martin, East End Taxi vice president, about how the new taxi fee can only help complete Dowe's airport vision.
"I travel around the Caribbean and evaluate what is going on. St. Maarten is light years ahead of us," Martin said. "It is not a big charge and you can put it in your invoice and explain why. If we don't do this now, we are falling behind the times."
The authority's initial plan was a $600 annual fee for the independent drivers, but there was pushback from the independent transportation community.
"I think the Port Authority's rates are fair," said Five Star Limo Service's Henville Pole, who picks up passengers about three times a month at the airport during the slow season and about five times a month during the busy season. "Operators can pass the cost along to clients instead of paying $600 upfront, anticipating they will make the money back."
Love Cabs' Stanley Troutman said he was surprised when he heard about the fee announcement and is concerned about how long it will be until the Port Authority board changes its mind.
"My problem is there is no expiration date," said Troutman, who picks up passengers at the airport nearly every day of the week. "I don't want to have to come back here next year and have to pay another $2. We need an end date and then we can revisit the fee."
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