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Taxi Debate Takes Several Routes

Several taxi drivers attended Monday’s legislative session. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

Safari taxi rides on St. Thomas can be part of the Virgin Islands experience. And for some, the more, the merrier the ride. However, senators have been concerned about the safety over the years.

While 29-seat capacity safaris were normal 30 years ago, legislation set a soft limit of 20 seats for safety concerns. Safaris of the period, seating 29, were grandfathered in; at least two of them are still running today (the grandfather clause went to the owner, not the vehicle).

However, for a new 29-seater to get a license, approval had to be obtained from the Taxicab Commission. Legislation before the Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs and Consumer Protection Monday would take away the need for special approval for the 29 seaters. It was forwarded with a favorable recommendation to the Rules and Judiciary Committee, despite testimony from Vernice Gumbs, executive director of the Taxicab Commission.

“Is bigger better? How would residents benefit from the larger vehicles when many of the roads in the local neighborhoods are limited in width? Safaris of any size do not provide service to persons who are physically challenged; do not provide safety measures such as seat belts and doors,” she testified.

Kerry Harrigan, president of Best Taxi Services, testified that bigger is better. He mentioned how cruise ships kept getting bigger, and it was logical for the taxis to serve them to get larger. He said, “I am in favor of the bill as it pertains to taxi safaris’ increase in passenger capacity. However, the bill needs to be revisited, and certain vague and ambiguous portions need to be more specific.”

He said taxi drivers were at an unfair advantage. They had to buy expensive taxi medallions, while hotel shuttle buses and water taxis did not have that expense. He didn’t mention the competition that made taxi medallions lose 90 percent of their value in New York City. No one said Uber specifically, but Sen. Carla Joseph mentioned a TikTok video she recently saw where Uber-like services could be obtained in the Cari app. Sen. Marise James said she saw an online report that a Digicab company is being proposed for the territory.

National reports show that taxi companies in cities where Uber has taken hold have suffered. Some companies have met the challenge by adopting hi-tech methods. Virgin Island taxi drivers have been slow to accept credit card payments.

The relationships between Gumbs and some of the senators seemed testy. Sen. Marvin Blyden complained that when he went to the Taxi Commission Office it was closed because of a problem with the door.

Gumbs said about the bill, “Taking all things into consideration the proposed bill as written, and my research of the files at the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission regarding safaris, the bill would have been better served if all stakeholders were invited around the table for discussion and clarity of its intended goal.”

Gumbs and Harrigan did agree on one thing. They both believed the word surrey was not used correctly in the bill and that it was best used to describe a horse-pulled carriage rather than a Virgin Islands taxi.

Sen. Novelle Francis asked testifiers what the safety concerns were exactly. No one gave him a definite answer.

Committee members Samuel Carrión, Ray Fonseca, Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan James, Carla Joseph, and Milton Potter attended the hearing.

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