Uber places ad seeking Block Island drivers

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 9:45am
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This story has been updated from the version that appeared on blockislandtimes.com on June 26:

Uber wants to come to Block Island, but the welcome mat might not come out, at least not from taxicab owners and drivers.

On Monday, June 25, the ride sharing service placed an online ad on The Block Island Times website seeking island drivers. The ad is straightforward: “Drive with Uber on Block Island!”

A spokesperson for Uber, Alix Anfang, said in a statement to The Times that the reason Uber wants to do business here is because “Last summer, nearly 10,000 riders opened up the Uber app on Block Island looking for a ride. It is clear that residents and visitors are clamoring for an affordable, reliable ride during the summer months.” 

Block Island has been seeking legislative support to regulate what are known as transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, from coming to Block Island, but while supporting legislation to prevent those companies from operating here passed in the state Senate this past session, the bill has stalled in the House and never made it to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk.

There is a mix of state laws and local ordinances overseeing the local taxicab industry and the regulation of transportation networks.

The local Block Island ordinance, Sec. 8-162, under the header “License required,” delineates who can, and who cannot, operate a taxicab on Block Island. “No person shall engage in the business of transporting passengers for hire in any motor vehicle for hire, without first obtaining a New Shoreham taxi, charter bus or limousine license from the town clerk, upon approval of the town council. The license shall be visibly displayed in any vehicle for hire at all times the vehicle is being operated for hire, and shall be produced upon request of any law enforcement official or passenger.”

However, Rhode Island general law, § 39-14.2-2, under the section “Not other carriers,” reads:

(a) [Transportation Network Companies] or TNC drivers are not common carriers, as defined in title 39; jitneys, as defined in § 39-13-1; taxicabs or limited public motor vehicles, as defined in § 39-14-1; or public motor vehicles, as defined in § 39-14.1-1.

(b) A TNC driver shall not be required to register the vehicle such driver uses for prearranged rides as a commercial or for-hire vehicle. 

State law, under the title Public Utilities and Carriers, Chapter 39-14.2, in the section “Transportation Network Company Services — Controlling authority,” appears to contradict the Block Island ordinance that limits who can operate a ride sharing vehicle on the island: 

“Cities, towns, and other local entities in the state are expressly prohibited from:

(1) Establishing any licensing or registration requirement or imposing any charge, fee, or tax on transportation network companies, transportation network company operators, or personal vehicles;

(2) Requiring a TNC driver to obtain a business license or any other type of similar authorization to operate within the jurisdiction; or

(3) Subjecting transportation network companies to the city, town, or local entity's rate, entry, operation, or other requirements; provided, however, that cities and towns may continue to impose excise taxes upon the legal owners of vehicles used to provide TNC services in a manner consistent with previous such taxation of private motor vehicles.

Block Island has implemented a series of taxi zones that licensed cab owners use to calculate fees. As an example, a ride from Old Harbor to Town Beach is $10. A ride from Old Harbor to Minister’s Lot is $14, but the taxi may charge an additional $4 to travel down a dirt road. From Old Harbor to Settler’s Rock is $18.

The section of Rhode Island state law that addresses the issue of how a transportation network company can calculate and collect fees appears in § 39-14.2-12, under the header “Fare charged for TNC services provided:”

(a) On behalf of a TNC operator, a TNC may charge a fare for the transportation services provided to the passengers; provided that, if a fare is charged, the TNC shall disclose to the riders the fare or fare calculation method on its website or within the digital network.

(b) The TNC shall provide the potential rider with the option to receive a reasonably accurate estimate of the expected total fare before the passenger enters the TNC operator's personal vehicle.

(c) Fares for TNC services shall not be paid in cash. Any payment for TNC services shall be made only electronically using the TNC's digital network or other application.

It was this section of Rhode Island state law that the town wanted to have amended to exempt Block Island from the general sweep of that legislation. 

Senate bill 2325, which passed in the Senate but not in the House, included the following language:

39-14.2-3. Powers of division.

(a) Every person operating a licensed transportation network company or operating as a licensed transportation network company operator  except for those operating in the town of New Shoreham is declared to be subject to the jurisdiction of the division of public utilities and carriers. The division may prescribe rules and regulations consistent with this chapter that are necessary to assure adequate, safe, and compliant service under this chapter. The division is further authorized to conduct investigations into complaints; conduct investigations initiated on its own; and to hold hearings as it deems necessary to fulfill the proper administration of this chapter.

(b) The division shall require transportation network companies to establish and implement a written policy capping dynamic pricing during disasters and relevant states of emergency and make this policy available on its website or application.

Section 2 of the amended bill read: 

Chapter 39-14.2 of the General Laws entitled "Transportation Network Company Services" is hereby amended by adding thereto the following section:

39-14.2-18.1. Regulation by the town of New Shoreham.

Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 39-14.2-18, the town of New Shoreham shall have the authority to establish reasonable regulations governing TNC operators offering TNC services in New Shoreham through proper adoption of town ordinance or by entering into operating agreements with TNCs.

Section 3. This act shall take effect upon passage.

A corresponding bill in the House did not get a vote on the House floor, and the bill never made its way to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk.

Therefore, the appearance of Uber “is not unexpected, given the lack of movement up at the statehouse to let us regulate these transportation companies, as we have for the independent taxi licenses since the 1920s,” said Brad Marthens, Chair of Block Island’s Motor Vehicles for Hire Commission, which regulates the local taxicab business.

A visit to the taxi stand at Old Harbor the morning the news broke brought a unified reaction.

“I’m anti-Uber,” said taxi driver Russell White, who was waiting for a fare. “Uber is a four-letter word here.”

When told that one of the reasons why Uber wanted to come to Block Island was that residents and visitors were seeking “affordable, reliable” transportation, driver Frank Nicastro said, “I thought that was what we were supplying.” 

“We offer very responsible and safe transportation for everyone involved at a very reasonable price,” said White. He also had a forecast: “Uber will kill the taxi industry out here.” 

“Wow,” said driver Steve McQueeney. “We’ll see. It’ll be very interesting.”

The posting of the news on The Block Island Times Facebook page generated a sometimes contentious, sometime personal, debate. The thread can be read here: https://bit.ly/2yMNRZQ.