The town of Ceiba is located on the east coast of Puerto Rico, just south of Fajardo. The region is hot, humid, and especially attractive to mosquitos. It is also the site of numerous development projects that have gone nowhere and done nothing to revitalize the now-abandoned U.S. naval station.
The ferry system, which connects the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra to the big island at Ceiba, is frequented by residents looking to meet their basic needs and tourists in search of tropical bliss.
But the Ceiba Ferry Terminal itself remains unfinished—a testament to the long list of projects that are also incomplete at the former Roosevelt Roads naval base. A lack of proper pavement and facilities is evident. An empty lot remains untouched because the government of Puerto Rico started construction of the terminal without acquiring a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Beside the main building sit rows of collapsible chairs beneath a large white awning. The sun seeps through the sides of the outdoor structure. In one corner, an electric metal fan spins but does little to cool off ticket holders. The exit is unpaved, uneven, and rocky.
In October 2020, following years of disrepair and unreliable service, Puerto Rico’s Public-Private Partnerships Authority (P3A) selected HMS Ferries, a U.S.-based ferry company, to assume control of the local government-owned Maritime Transport Authority (ATM). Residents have since demanded the cancelation of the 23-year contract, which stipulates that HMS Ferries “will receive $25 million the first year, $36 million the second, and $31 million every year afterward.”
But things have gotten steadily worse for Viequenses and Culebrenses under the new operator.
“This is our highway,” Nelson Melendez Brau, a Culebra resident, tells Latino Rebels. Melendez Brau is a member of the group Colectivo Somos Más Que 100×35 (We are More Than 100×35), a reference to the physical dimensions in miles of the big island. Melendez Brau says that the agreement with HMS Ferries “has been one of those contracts where the private company is the one that obtains all the benefits and the people who are supposed to receive the services receive very, very little of the services.”
A flashpoint in the fight for reliable ferry service came in March 2021, when protestors in Vieques and Culebra took to the sea in kayaks, temporarily halting all ferry service between the islands.
Earlier today in Culebra, a Puerto Rico police boat driver reversed & then advanced on peaceful protesters in a kayak, almost hitting them. They jumped out of the kayak before that happened. Protesters blocked an arriving ferry to protest unreliable ferry service. pic.twitter.com/7P92gvPUvD
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) March 27, 2021
The ferry system is essential to the lives and livelihoods of local residents. Viequenses and Culebrenses alike rely on it to access medical services, employment, education, and groceries, and the unstable supply chain between these two municipalities and the big island has resulted in shortages of food and gasoline.
Residents have identified issues with the ferry system’s itineraries, accessibility, and vessels. The mayors of Vieques and Culebra recently denounced HMS Ferries for failing to give priority to residents in the sale of boarding tickets. There is “no longer a preferential line for residents,” according to a report by Primera Hora.
Melendez Brau recalls one incident at the ticketing offices. A problem with the system led employees of the ferry terminal to advise Culebrenses traveling to the big island to board the ferry without tickets. But when they tried to return home later that day, about 75 people were queuing for tickets and, ultimately, not everyone was able to go home.
“There were a couple of people who were left in Ceiba because the capacity of the boat was filled because there were a lot of tourists that day,” says Melendez Brau, adding that residents have been left stranded on multiple occasions. Some have even been forced to sleep in their cars.
Residents have become frustrated with the ferry’s departure and arrival schedule, which they say caters to tourists. If Culebrenses need to go to the big island, they typically have to get up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the ferry. Oftentimes, Viequenses have to wake up before dawn to use the ferry service as well. And although there is another ferry that leaves later, residents like Diana Ramos Gutiérrez —who recently wrote about the lack of delivery rooms for expectant mothers on Vieques and Culebra for Latino Rebels— complain that they “won’t have time to do anything” by the time the ferry arrives in Ceiba around 9:00 a.m.
“They are failing in basic things like scheduling and trip capacity of both passengers and cargo,” Elda Guadalupe Carrasquillo of Colectivo Somos Más Que 100×35 told ABC News.
According to Melendez Brau, HMS Ferries released new schedules without soliciting residents’ input.
“The main problem is that they don’t talk to anybody,” he says. “They don’t consult with the people receiving services.”
HMS Ferries denies this claim. “We continue to engage with community groups and local elected officials to ensure system improvements reflect rider demand and needs,” HMS Ferries spokesperson Natalia Stevenson tells Latino Rebels.
ATM is responsible for evaluating and approving any schedule or fare changes, and there are currently no plans to raise ticket prices for residents.
“The recently approved Puerto Rico Ferry schedule was made in consultation between and with the approval of ATM, the mayors of both Vieques and Culebra, and HMS Ferries,” says Stevenson. “The [agreement] was carefully crafted to account for many potential circumstances in the future, and if a marginal fare increase becomes necessary in the next  years, we will work with ATM to ensure that any increase is fair and clearly communicated to our riders.”
Although Law 29-2009 requires citizen participation in the procurement process, residents allege that P3A did not consult them on matters relating to the ferry system. And when the government of Puerto Rico moved the terminal from Fajardo to Ceiba in 2018 in an effort to advance its development goals in the region, they did not consider residents’ concerns regarding the impact this would have locally.
Accessibility continues to be an issue that HMS Ferries has been working to improve. Ramos Gutiérrez, who lives on Vieques, says the Ceiba Ferry Terminal does not accommodate pregnant women and the elderly. She also claimed that front-facing communications from Puerto Rico Ferry have been geared toward tourists.
“What makes us more upset is the information part,” she said. “You go to the terminal and you don’t find the itinerary anywhere. How much does it cost for them to put a screen up with the schedules?”
For its part, HMS Ferries argues that the current solution is more accessible than the previous system.
“HMS Ferries-Puerto Rico implemented technology improvements through a new website, app, and ticketing system,” Stevenson said. “In addition, riders choosing not to use online or app features remain able to access ferry schedules, purchase tickets, and plan their trips in person at all terminals.”
Ramos Gutiérrez refutes this claim, saying the schedules are not available at terminals.
Este mes siquiera se han publicado horarios. Este anda recorriendo las redes y es la manera de informarse de la mayoría, pues tampoco está disponible en terminales y no todes tienen acceso o saben manejar la nueva página web, donde ya la gran mayoría de boletos están vendidos. pic.twitter.com/UCrivOn4qT
— Diana Ramos Gutiérrez (@dramosgutierrez) January 15, 2022
According to Stevenson, HMS Ferries is “manning all ticket windows at each terminal during hours of ferry service,” which is said to have increased the availability of ticket booths for customers. She also says that passenger and vehicle tickets can be purchased in advance at all terminals, though Latino Rebels was unable to independently verify this claim.
HMS Ferries states that employees of Puerto Rico Ferry notify ATM and local officials of any service alerts for occurrences affecting service. They also issue public notices for known schedule changes or alerts related to holidays or special events that may affect operations.
“To ensure riders are kept informed about Puerto Rico Ferry operations, schedule adjustments, service delays, and/or anticipated weather effects, service alerts are posted in the app, online, and on the Puerto Rico Ferry social media channels while announcements are made at each terminal and onboard affected vessels in operation,” Stevenson says.
Residents transporting their vehicles to the big island spend $40 per month for parking —another amenity managed by a private company— and their vehicles arrive one hour later than they do. The delay was supposed to be a temporary measure but has remained in place for months. Residents also have to take a shuttle to the parking lot 20 minutes away.
There are nine vessels in the Puerto Rico Ferry fleet, one of which is owned by ATM. According to Ramos Gutiérrez, there are only two ferries in service —one for Vieques and the other for Culebra— but HMS Ferries claims that the ATM vessel is the only one that is not in service. Residents say both vessels, luxury ships meant for traversing lakes, are not suitable for the maritime crossing.
According to both contracts, the vessels must be able to withstand oceanic conditions. The contracts also indicate that ATM leased them for $1 million each, not including the tens of thousands of dollars in processing costs. But as the new operator of the ferry system, HMS Ferries essentially has a contract with itself.
“They [made] themselves a contract for ships and they are the same people [contracting] the boats,” Ramos Gutiérrez says. “Because, supposedly, our boats [from ATM] don’t work—that is not true. Our ships have been in repair for years, some of them, and they don’t wanna pay to bring them back because if they do, they wouldn’t have this other contract of ships.”
HMS Ferries denies this claim also.
“Those statements are incorrect,” says Stevenson. “All vessels in operation are suited for, inspected, and certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to meet the unique conditions of Puerto Rico Ferry’s island service routes.”
Although residents have complained that the luxury ships do not have ample space for their groceries and belongings, Stevenson assures Latino Rebels that HMS Ferries has been working to resolve this issue. “Though the vessels in service provide space for storing items, after meeting with local mayors and residents, HMS Ferries-Puerto Rico has added storage capacity onboard to provide additional space for those traveling with groceries and other items,” she says.
Viequenses and Culebrenses alike typically have to go to the big island for food due to high prices in the island municipalities. Act 60 beneficiaries moving to Vieques and Culebra are elevating the cost of living.
Ramos Gutiérrez stresses how newcomers can afford to spend hundreds of dollars at the local markets while Viequenses cannot. “They have the power and money to do that,” she says.
Among schools that Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood party gvt is closing, is the ONLY high school on the small island of Vieques. They already experience austerity & colonialism on a larger scale than the big island. They havent had a hospital since 2017 & lack a reliable ferry system https://t.co/zf3hHJXaO5
— devilette (@deviIette) January 16, 2022
Ramos Gutiérrez tells Latino Rebels that around 250 houses were sold in Vieques in 2021—most of which are believed to have gone to Act 60 beneficiaries.
“The demographics are showing that we’re not poor anymore, but that’s not true,” says Ramos Gutiérrez. “I have seen an invasion.”
En el caso de #Vieques, el cambio de precio de alquileres 2016 a 2019 tuvo un alza de más de un 10%. Esto si se encuentran alquileres, dado que toda el área habitable de la isla se encuentra saturada de Airbnb. #Culebra en el segundo mapa ni se ve… #PuertoRico pic.twitter.com/Ke70DdtpGp
— Diana Ramos Gutiérrez (@dramosgutierrez) January 12, 2022
Colectivo Más Que 100×35 has vowed to challenge the 23-year agreement between ATM and HMS Ferries.
Melendez Brau outlined the group’s next steps. “When they voted on the contract, there [were] an even number of members on the board, [which is] against the bylaws. So, in effect, the contract is null,” he said. “We are trying to take this to court.”
Melendez Brau tells Latino Rebels that the group is still trying to have either the mayors of Culebra and Vieques or the individual appointed as a member of the public interest “put their names on the lawsuit” against ATM.
“Whoever accepted the terms of this contract violated his fiduciary duty to ensure the best use of the public funds that have been entrusted to him … which makes a private company financially benefit,” he wrote in a letter. “This observation is not capricious, rather it is based on the reading of the contract.”
James Baratta is a freelance journalist graduating from Ithaca College in May 2022 with a B.A. in journalism. He has written for Common Dreams, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, and Truthout, among others. Twitter: @jamesjbaratta