Cabbies disapprove of council’s jitney proposal

For anti-ride sharing legislation bill
Thu, 11/14/2019 - 6:45pm

A taxicab owner on Block Island called the New Shoreham Town Council’s concept of operating an island jitney service in order to pass anti-Uber legislation as an unnecessary exercise of “Let’s make a deal.” The Town Council devised the concept of including a jitney in the legislation to quash the impression that taxicabs have a monopoly on Block Island and to bolster its chance for passage in both houses of the General Assembly. 

Judy Clark, who owns an island taxicab, made it clear at the Town Council’s work session on Nov. 6, that she was not in favor of the service as a strategy to perhaps garner votes in the General Assembly. “I am totally opposed to this,” she said, noting that she felt an island jitney service would jeopardize the livelihood of the island’s taxicab owners and operators.

Town Manager Ed Roberge said a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority provided jitney or bus service would cost an estimated $140,000 to operate annually, and run from Old Harbor to New Harbor and the airport. The funding would be a question mark, as the only source would be derived from the fare box on the vehicle.

The Commission on Motor Vehicles for Hire, an advisory board to the council tasked with regulating the island’s taxicab business, is seeking exemption from Rhode Island’s transportation network services law that was enacted three years ago by the General Assembly. That legislation opened the door for ride sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, to operate on the island and throughout the state. 

The town’s legislation, known as the anti-Uber legislation, would exempt Block Island from being governed by the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, and allow the Town of New Shoreham to regulate its taxi business. The legislation has passed three times in the Senate, but failed to pass in the House on each occasion. Sen. Susan Sosnowski introduced the legislation in the Senate, while State Rep. and House Minority Leader, Blake Filippi, did the same in the House.

In an effort to pass the legislation in the House, the council floated the idea of presenting a package, which could include a seasonal jitney service proposal, in order to convey to the state’s legislators that the island’s taxicab owners do not operate as a “monopoly.”

Councilor Chris Willi said part of the concern for legislators is that Block Island “is legislating a monopoly. You’re not allowing competition in the free market. Now, we want to see this pass the Senate and the House.” In order to do that, Willi said the town needs to demonstrate that it’s open to “another transportation option,” such as a jitney service — “not just taxicabs.”

“I’m with Chris,” said Councilor Sven Risom, who noted that he spoke with Sosnowski about including “a small jitney service” in the legislation to show legislators that Block Island “has competing elements.” Risom said Sosnowski thought the council’s proposal for the legislation could “give it a clearer path for passage” in the General Assembly.     

“I understand what you are saying about what a monopoly is,” said Clark, “but in order to get what we hope to get from the state, by allowing a jitney to operate, is like saying, ‘We don’t want you, but we’ll get a bus, and that will take away some of our profits.’”

Clark said she is also opposed to a jitney because it would add to the traffic issues that burden the island during the busy summer season. “It’s really hard for me to figure out why anyone would want a bus stopping all over the island. I would rather try to get the legislation through without having to make a deal.”

“If I didn’t have this taxi I probably couldn’t stay here,” said Clark, who said she was getting emotional. “It’s our livelihood. That’s why we fight, that’s why we scream.”

Clark said the island’s taxicab owners and operators are “doing a great job,” and that, “There is no need for a bus, period. Where’s the proof that there is a need for this?”

Fellow cab owner Champ Starr echoed Clark’s sentiments, noting that “there are 32 companies” operating on Block Island. “You bring an Uber in and that makes 33. I don’t see that saying there’s a monopoly is a selling point. We are individuals. We operate by your guidelines. We have not said keep Uber and Lyft out. We said, ‘If they come, let them operate under the town and state’s guidelines.”

The Town Council noted that the distinction in the language needed to be reviewed, and revised, in order to be in alignment with the taxicab owners’ intentions concerning encroachment of ride sharing services on the island. The current language would prohibit ride-sharing services from operating on-island.

As for traffic congestion issues, Starr said it could be handled through police enforcement, and potentially creating a one-way loop in the downtown area, with traffic on one side and parking on the other. “A van, or a jitney, is not going to solve your problem. I’m wondering where this is coming from. Has there been a formal complaint saying that we’re not moving people around?”

“No,” said Second Warden André Boudreau, noting that there haven’t been any complaints. Boudreau said the town wants transportation services to operate more efficiently. “It’s not that you’re not doing your jobs. That’s what I am hearing from the public.”

Willi said there haven’t been any complaints, except for the cost of the taxicab service. “I think (the congestion issue) came up at a Chamber of Commerce meeting about two years ago. So we wanted to take a look at it,” he said, noting the issue of “major congestion” in the downtown area. The idea for a jitney was then presented as a solution. “It wasn’t to put anybody out of business.”

First Warden Ken Lacoste spoke to the history of the anti-ride sharing legislation saying that the reason the legislation has passed in the Senate is because “the town has had jurisdiction over the taxis on Block Island for years. That’s one of our stronger arguments. But, somehow, when it gets to the other side of the aisle, in the House, we can’t get it over the hump.”

The Town Council decided to clarify and revise the language in the legislation before sending it back to the state’s legislators. Willi made the motion that was seconded by Risom and the vote passed 4-0. Councilor Martha Ball recused, as she is a taxicab owner.

After the meeting, Lacoste told The Times that, “The town wants the Motor Vehicle for Hire Commission to clarify its anti-Uber Legislation and revisit the jitney concept. The two are only loosely connected.”

Filippi told The Times after the meeting that “no one on the Town Council raised (the proposal)” with him. “We've been working hard for three years to pass the Uber bill, and will continue doing so. I'm unaware of any state-level conversations about a jitney service helping to move the Uber bill through the House. The two issues are not connected."

Block Island has 32 licensed taxicab operators, and an ordinance regulating its transportation services that has been in place since 1929.