Taxi legislation has “really good chance”

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 11:30am
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“I think we’re worth precedent-setting legislation.”

Taxi operator Kristine Monje spoke those words during a meeting held at the Community Center where three state legislators gathered with the public to discuss the town’s pushing of legislation in the General Assembly that would require transportation services like Uber and Lyft to operate under local governance if they were to operate on Block Island. On Monday, Rhode Island State Senators Susan Sosnowski, and Roger Picard, from Woonsocket, who is Chair of the Senate Committee on Corporations, along with State Rep. Blake Filippi, joined New Shoreham First Warden Ken Lacoste at the table to answer questions about the issue.

Sosnowski felt that the town’s legislation has a “really good chance” of passing. “You can’t do better than having the Chair of the Senate Committee here” on the island learning more about the town’s taxi operation. The state legislature has allowed the Town of New Shoreham to regulate transportation services since 1929.

Picard echoed Sosnowski’s sentiments about the town’s legislation passing. “Does it have legs? The answer is yes,” he said, noting that if the town’s legislation passes it would go into effect in about two month’s time. 

At the outset of the meeting, Sosnowski noted that Uber and Lyft’s lobbyists are going to “try to push back” against the town’s legislation, and call it “precedent setting.” Prior to the meeting, Filippi told a few taxi operators that “Uber and Lyft lobbyists are hard at work trying to kill (the legislation).” Both Sosnowski and Filippi introduced bills for the town’s legislation in their respective chambers.

Resident Pat Tengwall, who is on the town’s taxi waiting list, said his concern was that Uber and Lyft would get their way because of the powerful lobbyists that the company has employed to fight on their behalf. “They want to make the rules,” he said.

“They can be bullies,” remarked Picard, who noted a fondness for Block Island, having visited as a day-tripper, and said that he was in attendance at the meeting at Sosnowski’s behest.

“And nobody likes bullies,” said Sosnowski.

The legislative initiative by the New Shoreham Commission on Motor Vehicles For Hire is in response to the so-called Uber legislation that passed the General Assembly in April of 2016 and allows 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. The town’s legislation would take regulation away from RIDPUC and transfer governance of transportation services on-island to the Town of New Shoreham. 

“If I had known that this was going to happen I wouldn’t have let it happen,” said Sosnowski, noting that she wasn’t aware that the Uber legislation would pass and impact the island’s taxi service. There are 32 taxis that operate on Block Island in the summer, and two during the winter months.

During the discussion, the taxi operators stated their concerns about the negative impact that Uber and Lyft could have on the island. Taxi operator and Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick explained that the island’s taxis operate with a set zone system for fares instead of meters. “With Uber the fares would be different,” she said. 

“From harbor to harbor the cost is $10.70 for one person,” said MVFH member Patrick Evans.

Brad Marthens, Chair of the MVFH, said that there is “organized confusion” during the summer season on-island. Adding Uber or Lyft, he said, would adversely affect the island’s commerce and taxi service operations.

“We’re a transportation service for the island,” said Monje. “Hundreds of people get off the ferry. To have Uber drivers unregulated, parking in different places, clogging up the works,” would create a problem, affecting tourism and public safety.

“We don’t need Uber here,” said MVFH Vice Chair Vin McAloon. “We provide very good service here. We have a system that works.”

“We work together to satisfy the needs of the customers,” said Richard Gann of the island’s taxi operators. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”

Lacoste said that people should let their voices be heard in the legislature. “We’ll keep a positive thought about it (passing),” he said, before thanking everyone for attending.