A proposal that would have required the VI Taxicab Commission to conduct a feasibility study into the potential impact of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft was dead on arrival at a Legislature Finance Committee hearing on Thursday .
Taxi representatives also said on Thursday that after 17 years, the commission’s board had approved a 50% increase in fares, which is expected to take effect at the end of the month.
The feasibility study was part of Bill No. 34-0249, sponsored by Sen. Genevieve Whitaker, but the senator said she would amend and delete that section of the bill after hearing from taxi drivers.
Whitaker stressed that “I am open to suggestions” and “I have already moved forward with the elimination of the feasibility study”.
Regarding the fare, driver Gerard Steven said drivers “got the same price when gas was $2.59 and traveled the same distance for the same pay” because the fare was not increased for 17 years.
“We feel like we’re in captivity when it comes to increasing rates,” Steven said.
The tariff has remained stable as the cost of raw materials has increased, and “I would like to ask all businesses in Sainte-Croix to return to 2005 prices and see who will survive,” he added.
Acting director Vernice Gumbs said the commission’s board voted on June 29 for an overall increase to the current tariff of 50% and to review that figure every three years.
Senator Novelle Francis Jr. asked what the impact would be on the cost of a trip from Christiansted to Rohlsen Airport, and driver Samuel “Mighty Pat” Ferdinand said it’s currently $16, so l 50% increase would add $8 and bring the total to $24.
“It’s been 17 years, 17 long years. And the cost of fuel, the cost of groceries, the cost of everything has gone up dramatically during that time — that’s only fair — not to mention the maintenance and condition of our roads, and the impact on your taxis that have been subjected to this type of damage,” Francis said.
He urged the taxi commission to raise the fare more often and help drivers.
“I implore, I implore the commission, do your job, take action, so we don’t have to create parachute legislation and put senators in this position,” Francis said.
Taxi drivers had nothing positive to say about the possibility that ride-sharing services might eventually be allowed in the Virgin Islands.
Driver Alphonse Stalliard called for a town hall meeting to get feedback from drivers on various aspects of the bill, but made clear he was “not in favor of Uber driving in the VI as it would harm financially to the community of taxi drivers”.
Ferdinand explained that senators previously passed a law that individuals could own no more than two taxi medallions, in anticipation of the impact of ride-sharing services.
“The guys with the money, they’re going to buy 20 to 30 cars, then they’re going to put us driving the cars, being slaves again,” Ferdinand said. “And if we refuse to drive those cars, they’re going to bring in people to drive those cars.”
Ferdinand told senators to “remember, this is the last black-owned business in the territory, that’s the taxi.”
Gumbs said while Uber and Lyft can be convenient, “it also has a lot of problems, including rapes, murders, etc.”
The senators also raised the possibility of ride-sharing services in the territory, and while some argued for an app that can help customers find available drivers, they said the taxi industry must be protected from competition. .
“We know modern things are happening, but don’t get rid of what we have and what works right now to start looking at something new. Let’s improve on what we have and make this taxi industry great for the territory,” said Sen. Dwayne DeGraff.
“The taxi industry in the Virgin Islands has been a local business for donkey years. The taxi business supports many families, especially on the island of St. Thomas. I think we have 1,000 taxi drivers in St. Thomas. That’s a significant number of people working in the industry. And in St. Croix, I think the numbers were 200-something,” Sen. Kurt Vialet said.
Vialet said he did not support the feasibility study because “we know what the local market really is. We need to conduct a feasibility study on how taxi drivers are going to be better able to serve the people of the Virgin Islands and how they are going to expand their routes and be more flexible in terms of what they do. But I know if we’re supposed to bring Uber and Lyft however convenient it is for us when we go to the mainland it’s really going to destroy the taxi industry in the Virgin Islands and that’s just the reality because we we are small.”
The bill also directs the commission to publish maximum fares by January 10 each year, authorizes a $1 surcharge during fuel price spikes, as seen during the pandemic, and calls for disputes between drivers and passengers over fares to be settled by the VI police or an official of the taxi commission office.
Whitaker said she submitted amendments to the bill for future consideration.