Undercurrents: Taxi Industry Heading toward Independence

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

If proposals pending at the V.I. Port Authority and at the Legislature are any indication, the territory is shifting toward removing controls on its taxi industry.

In a meeting last week with taxi drivers on St. Thomas, Port Authority officials revealed plans to accommodate independent drivers at Cyril King Airport – for a fee – despite the franchise agreement it has with the V.I. Taxi Association.

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Meanwhile a proposal that would remove a safeguard on taxi medallion speculation is speeding through the Legislature on the premise that it’s a way to help veterans and will have a limited effect on the industry.

No one can legally operate a taxi without either owning or leasing a medallion. The market price for a medallion varies from island to island depending largely on the tourism sector. Recently at a legislative committee meeting, Levron Sarauw, the acting executive director of the V.I. Taxicab Commission, the industry regulatory agency, gave ballpark estimates of the going rates as $15,000 on St. Croix, $40,000 on St. Thomas, and $60,000 on St. John.

To control the number of taxi operators, only a small number of medallions are issued each year.

Current law prohibits anyone who buys a taxi medallion from leasing or selling that medallion for at least three years.

A bill offered by Sen. Justin Harrigan would exempt veterans who purchase a medallion from the three-year moratorium on leasing. It would leave the three-year restriction on selling in place.

The catch is the only people buying medallions at the Taxicab Commission’s annual auction are veterans.

“It is solely for veterans,” Sarauw said.

His predecessor, Judy Wheatley, said that’s been the practice for several years. Although the law states that the commission may auction up to 10 medallions, with six of them reserved for veterans, the fact is the commission has only been auctioning six and only to veterans. The six are divided equally among the three main islands.

From his time at the Veterans Affairs office, Harrigan said he was aware of at least one case in which an individual tried to get a veteran to front for him in bidding at an auction, and because of that type of problem he is not proposing to lift the three-year ban on selling a medallion.

But he argued that the restriction on leasing a medallion places an unnecessary burden on the medallion owner. If a medallion owner chooses not to drive a cab himself, he can’t make money from the medallion.

“I felt that was a small business that was being kept on the shelf,” he said.

Sarauw agrees. He testified in favor of Harrigan’s bill two weeks ago at the Committee on Government Services, Veterans and Consumer Affairs. That committee voted unanimously in favor of sending the bill on for further action.

Sarauw also said he has no problem with the Port Authority’s proposal to accommodate independent taxi drivers at the Cyril King Airport on St. Thomas.

“I don’t understand how any port can be locking out people,” Sarauw said.

Port Authority spokeswoman Monifa Marrero said the plan is to set aside 10 parking spaces for independent taxi drivers.

“They’ll be in the parking lot,” she said, but the exact location has not yet been determined.

For each independent taxi vehicle allowed to operate at the airport, the cost will be $600 a year, plus 50 cents per passenger, she said.

Marrero said plans also call for instituting a pick-up fee of $50 on the north ramp, that is, the section of the airport reserved for private aircraft. That money will cover the cost of law enforcement personnel required to be on the scene.

The taxi association, which has a franchise at the airport, would continue to operate from the space just outside of the baggage claim area, she said.

Current law provides for the association to maintain an “exclusive franchise” at the airport.

Marrero first referred questions about whether the new policy would infringe on that franchise, to a Port Authority attorney, Nycole Thompson. Later she said Thompson would not comment because of pending litigation.

The proposed fees are to go into effect Sept. 1.

Sarauw said the fee structure seems fair to him. “The Port Authority wants to make improvements,” he said. “And somebody has to pay for it … I think it’s a reasonable cost.”

The Taxicab Commission board members have not taken a position on either proposal. One commission member referred questions to Chairman Ulric Benjamin or Vice Chairman Sweeny Toussaint, but neither responded last week to requests for comment.

The commission office shares space at the Property and Procurement building in Subbase on St. Thomas. Although it is supposed to field complaints against taxi drivers, its phone number is not published. The office can be reached through the Property and Procurement switchboard (774-0828) or directly at 693-4211.

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