A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Psst … Want a ride?
It’s not hard to find a so-called gypsy cab operator. Just step out of a supermarket with a load of groceries in your arms. Or check the shopping center parking lot or hesitate on the fringes of Market Square. You don’t need to look; he’ll find you.
Recent reports of alleged robberies of some tourists who used this informal mode of transport have once again raised the question of whether, and how, to regulate this well-established but totally illegal cottage industry.
As executive director of the V.I. Taxi Commission, Judy Wheatley is all-too-familiar with “gypsy” cabs. The commission promulgates and enforces rules and regulations for the territory’s approximately 2,000 registered, licensed, medallion-holding, legal taxi drivers. It has very little control over those who operate without a medallion and without legal authorization. But it does try.
“Some people think we aren’t addressing the issue but we do,” Wheatley said. “We issue them a citation for illegally operating a business.”
For a first offense, the fine is $50; for the second, $100; the third, $500; and anything over that is $1,000.
The fines are too small to be a real deterrent, Wheatley suggested, adding that the man arrested by police in connection with one of the recent robberies had been cited a number of times by the commission. “He just paid the fines and kept operating.”
It can also be difficult to make a case against a driver. Often he will claim he knows his passenger and is just giving him or her a lift.
“The public has to help us by stopping using them,” Wheatley said, but she has little hope of that happening.
The practice is generally tolerated – if not encouraged – by the public. Some stores appear to have given tacit permission to drivers to solicit fares from their customers.
“Technically these people are loitering on people’s property,” Wheatley said. “What are they (the store owners) doing to keep them off their property?”
There’s also sympathy for those drivers who appear hungry for work. Wheatley quoted a woman defending unregistered cabs, saying “Everybody needs to eat.”
And, of course, there is the service they provide. While medallion-holders are generally considered part of the tourism industry, “gypsy” cabs tend to cater to residents.
Wheatley rejects the widely held notion that medallion cabs underserve the local population, pointing to companies like Islander Taxi that dispatch cabs in response to calls from residents. But she admits that the large size of most medallion cabs – designed to accommodate a large number of passengers – make it impractical for them to pick up a single passenger. It also makes it more difficult for them to travel off the beaten track between ports, hotels and restaurants.
Wheatley said she couldn’t even guess at the number of unauthorized vehicles for hire because it fluctuates so much. For some drivers, the illegal business is a principal occupation – some even have business cards, she said – but for many it is just an occasional way to supplement their incomes from a regular job. Or as Wheatley put it: “I finish work. I’m broke. I need some cash. I go to the supermarket and see if I can make $50.”
While operating without a medallion is merely a misdemeanor, the lack of regulation of this underground industry may also invite other problems.
For example, Wheatley said, “We get constant complaints” about suspected drug sales by unauthorized cab drivers operating at night in the Red Hook area of St. Thomas’ East End.
There are also reports of unregulated drivers charging far more than the legally approved fares, she said, citing as a recent example a passenger who complained she was charged $30 for a ride from a supermarket in Long Bay to Tutu – “a fare that should be $10.”
Wheatley said she would like to see more control of the activity and she has a recommendation that could establish that and also expand the taxi industry.
Her idea is to create a second tier of taxis. These would be “local taxis only” that would be allowed to work out of specific places such as shopping centers and near supermarkets, in defined zones that are frequented primarily by residents, not by tourists.
Tier one taxis – those currently recognized under the medallion system – would continue to operate as they do, covering the ports and hotels, accommodating both tourists and residents.
Another major difference would be the size of the vehicles allowed for each tier. Tier one vehicles could include the same large type – vans and safari buses – that currently carry a large number of passengers. Tier two would be restricted to smaller vehicles and would be able to maneuver in some of the tight areas where residents live.
Wheatley envisions a fee schedule created specifically for tier two cabs and would have them color coded, with each zone designated a color and the driver’s shirt and his license plate bearing the same color.
The trick would be to ensure that tier two taxis don’t compete with medallion holders, who essentially operate in a franchise situation and have for about 50 years.
The number of medallions is tightly regulated. Currently there are 1,247 medallions on St. Thomas; 512 on St. Croix; and 162 on St. John, Wheatley said. By law the commission may issue no more than two new medallions per island each year, for a total of six, and only military veterans are eligible to obtain them.
The commission and the Office of Veterans Affairs jointly conduct an annual auction for the available medallions. Wheatley said at the most recent auction, in December 2013, there were no bidders for the St. John medallions. The St. Croix medallions went for $8,000 each and the St. Thomas, for $21,000 each.
An owner may sell a medallion – reportedly at far higher prices than the auction sale. Or he may rent it out.
To be eligible to drive a vehicle for hire, a driver must have a Class C driver’s license, and those are issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Wheatley said DMV does not routinely report the number to the commission, but her guess would be that there are about 5,000 Class C licenses, obviously considerably more than the number of medallions.
A two-tier system may not be the answer, but some sort of reform is needed – at the least, stiffer penalties for operating without a medallion, Wheatley said, because right now “we don’t have accountability.”