A day-long brouhaha over Motor Vehicle Bureau Director Jerris T. Browne’s Tuesday edict prohibiting St. Thomas-based rental cars from going on the barge to St. John ended with Gov. John deJongh Jr. putting an indefinite hold on the measure.
“Effective tonight until further notice,” Government House spokesman Jean Greaux told the Source Wednesday evening.
In a prepared statement, Greaux said the Attorney General’s Office will examine both existing local and federal law to determine whether this order is in conflict with the Commerce Clause.
Additionally the governor’s directive calls on Browne to make an assessment of each St. John car rental agency and determine whether there is a need to adjust the car rental company’s fleet quotas.
The sudden enforcement of an old car rental law left St. Thomas car rental companies scrambling and visitors reeling as they learned they might have to change their plans. The news hit several travel forums early in the morning. By early evening, there were close to 200 entries on three separate travel forums complaining about Browne’s edict.
Many said they wouldn’t vacation on St. John any more if they had to rent their car on St. John.
“Between the rising airfare costs, closed businesses and now this?” said a comment by Caribbeanbeachchick on News of St. John. “There’s more than two islands in the Caribbean. I’ll take my business elsewhere thanks,” she wrote.
Companies mounted an email and phone campaign to Browne, the Tourism Department and Government House.
By midday, Browne was responding to missives from users of the travel forums that there would be a 60-day grace period rather than implement the law immediately as it initially appeared.
Greaux said the 60-day grace period was now a moot point since the governor’s order rescinds indefinitely Browne’s edict.
While Browne may have sent out form letters to those queries from travel forum sites, he did not respond to several phone calls from the Source.
St. Thomas resident Anna Clarke wondered why this law was being implemented now.
“It’s probably the taxi drivers,” she said. “I can’t see how anybody else would benefit from it.”
According to Browne’s Tuesday letter to the rental car companies, those that violated the law faced a $1,000 fine for each vehicle allowed to go to St. Thomas and/or losing their business license for more than six months.
The practice of bringing St. Thomas rental cars to St. John has increased substantially in recent years because it’s convenient and saves money for people who aren’t daunted by backing up the vehicle onto the barge. While they have to pay the barge cost of around $50 round trip, visitors save money on the taxi fares and baggage fees from Cyril E. King Airport to Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie ferry terminals and on ferry fares and the associated baggage fees.
They can shop on St. Thomas where the grocery selection is better and usually cheaper. While rental prices for four-wheel drive cars on both islands are often similar, vacationers who don’t feel the need to have this amenity rent smaller sedans at cheaper prices. Additionally many people taking day trips from St. Thomas to St. John bring their cars on the barge.
The impact on the St. Thomas car rental companies is huge. Alex Belmonte, who owns the St. Thomas-based Discount Car Rental, said that 70 to 75 percent of his business is by people who rent cars to take to St. John. He also said he has cars reserved for the next six months by people planning to take them to St. John.
“I’ll be out of business,” he said before Government House made the announcement.
He said that he has 10 employees and pays $8,000 a month to the government in gross receipts tax.
Bill Creque, who owns Dependable Car Rental on St. Thomas, said that the number of customers taking cars to St. John is growing and now accounts for 25 percent of his business.
He questioned the legality of the law since other vendors such as food suppliers face no such prohibition.
“I don’t think any jurisdiction has the right to restrict commerce. This bill has to be repealed,” Creque said.
Reached after the Government House announcement, Creque said he was relieved.
One customer who planned to rent from a St. Thomas company for his visit to St. John is arriving Thursday. Wayne Comeaux of Houston said before the news about Browne’s 60-day grace period hit the travel forums that he managed to get a St. John rental but it will cost him $250 more than he planned on spending for his 10-day trip. Additionally, he wanted to rent a soft-top, two-door jeep for him and his wife, but now he’ll have to make do with a larger car.
He said he was angry that the law’s enforcement was done without notice.
Another person with a planned visit called to say he’s now booked with a St. John car rental agency rather than risk not having a car. Jim O’Donnell of Scotia, N.Y., said he rented on St. Thomas for his two previous trips and he planned to continue doing so. He said that while car rental costs are about the same, he saves about $100 since he doesn’t have to pay taxi and ferry fares for four people.
“And there’s the ability to shop,” he said, adding that shopping on St. Thomas also saves money because groceries are cheaper.
The need to rent cars on St. Thomas for use on St. John began to escalate in part when St. John companies did not have enough cars available during the busy winter season. St. John Car Rental owner Albert Willis said the number of car rental slots on St. John is capped at 625.
“St. John has not had a quota increase in 20 years,” Willis said.
He estimated that about 300 to 400 St. Thomas-based rental cars come to St. John each week but Courtesy Car Rental owner Greg Edward said the number was 700 to 800 a week.
“It impacts our traffic and the impact is terrible for St. John businesses,” Edward said, adding that he can’t rent all his available vehicles because so many come from St. Thomas.
Both he and Willis said they’ve had people renting St. Thomas vehicles ask if they can park in their lots and request help when they’ve had a problem.
Barge companies stood to see a cut in their revenues from Browne’s edict. No one was available to respond at Boyson Inc. and no one called back from Love City Car Ferries and Global Marine.
Sen. Craig Barshinger called this a law with unintended consequences. While he said he understands the issue for St. John-based car rental companies, it restrains free trade between the islands.
He suggested that St. John car rental companies be allowed to set up shop at the airport but Edward said it would be cumbersome because there are 18 companies renting cars on St. John.
Barshinger said that allowing people to rent cars at the airport if they so chose better serves the tourists.
“We are a tourism economy,” he said.