A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
The V.I. Taxi Association and the V.I. Port Authority appear to be working out their differences on a couple of fronts. What that may mean for the taxi-riding public is not yet clear, but it seems likely that one result could be at least a slight increase in fares on St. Thomas.
Both Carlton Dowe, executive director for the Port Authority, and attorney Lee Rohn, who is representing the taxi association, said recently that the two sides are close to finalizing a new franchise agreement governing the operation of taxis at the island’s Cyril King Airport.
“We’re days away” from a new agreement, Rohn said Friday.
The association has been operating “month-to-month” under the old agreement for about a year and a half, she said.
Rohn was optimistic that a decades-old Superior Court association suit against the Port Authority and some hotels will finally be resolved in the not too distant future, saying, “we’re pretty much on the last leg” of the case.
It centers on the association’s contention that some hotels were circumventing the franchise by sending hotel-operated vehicles to the airport to pick up guests. That’s permissible under the agreement only under certain conditions, she said.
“It has to be a pre-paid package tour,” Rohn said. The association’s position was “There was no pre-payment, and there was no tour.” The Port Authority was listed as a defendant because “they knew it was happening and they did nothing to stop it.”
She was quick to add that Dowe has been far better than his predecessors in enforcing the franchise agreement.
“Ultimately, the court will decide these issues,” Dowe said in an interview in late June.
Meanwhile, he defended the authority’s move to regulate and charge fees to non-association members who pick up paying passengers at the airport. Those include tour drivers as well as car rental companies located away from the airport who offer pick-up services to incoming customers. The new fees are scheduled to go into effect in September.
“There’s nothing unusual” about such regulations, he said. They are common in other jurisdictions throughout the country. The Port Authority is “exercising its rights to manage the facility and not to have a chaotic situation.” The airport was designed to handle 300,000 passengers on a regular basis, he added, and now it’s trying to deal with more like 720,000.
Concerning the franchise agreement, Dowe said there are only a few relatively minor items left to resolve.
“It’s not an issue of money at this point,” he said. Rohn concurred.
Under the current agreement, the association pays the Port Authority $63,000 a year for its franchise at the airport, according to Monifa Marrero Brathwaite, Port Authority public information officer. She was unsure whether she could release the figure for the renewed agreement since it is not yet in place.
She did reveal a major change in the proposed agreement. Rather than operating only large vans at the airport, the association would provide a mix of sedans and station wagons as well as 15-passenger vans. The minimum number of vehicles required at all times would be 20.
“We’re not at odds” with the Port Authority, Rohn said. “We need them and they need us. It’s what we’d call a symbiotic relationship.”
While she didn’t discuss the possibility of increased fares because of a possible increase in the franchise fee, Rohn did say, “We don’t want to price taxis out of the market, and the Port Authority does not want to put us out” of the market.
If there is a change in rates, it may go unnoticed by most residents for two reasons — most obviously because the majority of taxi riders are tourists and a little less obviously because the current rates aren’t widely publicized.
Although some tourist-orientated publications print the rates, neither the V.I. Tourism Department nor the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission, the entity responsible for determining rates, publishes them online.
“We have tariffs available for purchase” at the commission office, a staffer told the Source. The cost is $15. “We don’t have a website where it would be available.”
She did provide some sample rates: The trip from Cyril King Airport to Red Hook costs $15 for a single rider or $11 per person for two or more people. The charge from the airport to downtown Charlotte Amalie is $7 for a single rider or $6 per person for two or more people. In both instances, there is a luggage charge, $2 per bag for anything under 30 inches by 20 inches and $4 for each bag larger than that.