Island’s taxi owners want local governance

Over Uber and Lyft
Fri, 04/14/2017 - 10:45am

Block Island’s Commission on Motor Vehicles for Hire is pushing legislation in the Rhode Island General Assembly that would require Transportation Network Services such as Uber and Lyft to operate on the island under the governance of the New Shoreham Town Council, placing those companies under the same regulations as local buses, limos, and taxis. Those regulations, which are defined in the town’s Motor Vehicle for Hire Ordinance, involve residency requirements, background checks, voter registration, a waiting list, licensing, and rates.

On behalf of the MVFH, State Sen. Susan Sosnowski introduced bill S430 in the Senate, while Rep. Blake Filippi introduced bill H5650 in the House. Some of the island’s taxi owners attended meetings at the State House on April 4 and 5, during which testimony was heard in response to the two bills.

The initiative by the MVFH is in response to legislation that passed in the General Assembly in April of 2016 that allows such Transportation Network Services, like Uber and Lyft, to operate in any town or city in the state under the regulation of the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. A memo circulated by Block Island’s taxi owners noted that, since 1929, the state legislature has permitted the New Shoreham Town Council to regulate transportation services on-island, rather than having local carriers fall under the authority of the RIDPUC.

Block Island taxi owner James Rondinone told The Block Island Times that if the legislation passes “it would level the playing field” for island drivers. He noted that Uber and Lyft operators “would have to abide by the same rules” as the island’s taxi owners. That includes: “proof of insurance via a binder sent to the Town Clerk from the insurer; the same residency requirements we have; fees paid to the town for licensing; and the same rates and other regulations delineated by town ordinance.” 

Rondinone said the bills introduced by Sosnowski and Filippi “also help to provide jobs for locals and keep the taxi business solvent. Uber and Lyft coming to the island will not only cause cab owners to leave the business, but also will add to the traffic congestion because it is unregulated.”

If Uber and Lyft are permitted to operate on the island without town governance “it could have a harmful effect on tourism, as Uber and Lyft cannot pick up fares off the street, cannot guarantee service in remote areas of the island where cellphone and internet service are unreliable, and cannot do tours,” said Rondinone. “We have no public transportation for our visitors and if they have a bad experience coming here, because they could not get around, this would negatively impact tourism.” 

Rondinone noted that, “Due to Block Island’s geographical location, our transportation businesses are limited to Block Island. We are prohibited from serving as vehicles for hire on the mainland, as our business is not comparable to commercial or public transportation on the mainland.”

Rondinone explained that Block Island’s taxi operators use a zone system for calculating fares, and not a meter. “If we were to provide transportation on the mainland, we would have to comply with rules set forth for the mainland by the RIDPUC,” he said. “Our business is also seasonal. The entire fleet operates, and is needed, in the summer months, whereas in the winter only two taxis are operating and the business is very slow indeed.” 

To address questions about the issue, Sen. Sosnowski and Sen. Roger Picard, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Corporations, will be visiting Block Island on Monday, April 17 to meet with the island’s taxi owners, the Town Council and the public at the Community Center from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.