Analysis, Part 1: Pathetic Taxi Service Is a USVI Economic Emergency

Taxis wait to take tourists around St. John.
Taxis wait to take tourists around St. John.

This is the first in a series of stories looking at the severe failings of taxi service in the territory; how the wildly outsized influence of the taxi lobby has brought us here and what needs to happen.

Part 1: A knife in the heart

The lack of reliable taxi transportation after dark anywhere in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a knife in the heart to the territory’s tourism economy and senators urgently need to enable Uber and Lyft to help fill the gaping hole.

A locally-grown ridesharing app would be great. But everyone who visits has Uber and Lyft, giving those services a huge advantage. Improvements to the local taxi system would be great, but history suggests – Nay, shouts! – that will not happen.

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Tourism contributes more than $200 million in tax revenue and accounts for 8,000 jobs in the territory, representing 30 percent of the U.S. VIrgin Island’s gross domestic product, according to the V.I. Tourism Department. And it is expected only to grow in importance.

Yet although tourism is the territory’s dominant industry and is projected only to grow in importance, there is no central number to call for a taxi, no way to order a taxi online and no reliable taxi service after dusk anywhere in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Very few, if any taxis take credit cards. Unlicensed, unregulated “gypsy” cabs are a large portion of all taxi service on St. Thomas, but are less active on St. Croix.

Neighboring Puerto Rico has late-night taxi service and Uber. So does the Dominican Republic. Many smaller competing destinations like Antigua and St. Maarten do not have Uber and may not be much better for taxi service. That makes it an opportunity for the USVI to move to the front of the pack, not an excuse for inaction.

For decades, elected officials, tourism officials, cruise industry leaders, local business leaders and economic experts repeatedly insisted the territory’s tourism product needs to improve.

Back in 1999, Gov. Charles Turnbull called tourism the “linchpin and epicenter” of the economy.

Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who served as tourism commissioner for 12 years, repeatedly emphasized the need to improve offerings.

“We are not only in competition with other Caribbean destinations, we are in competition with the world,” Nicholson-Doty said last October.

Not long ago V.I. businesses sounded the alarm that hordes of visitors would take their dollars elsewhere if liquor and cigarettes were taxed more, though still less than stateside.

Just the other day, Gov. Albert Bryan told cruise industry leaders the U.S. Virgin Islands is determined to position itself as the number one tourism destination in the Caribbean.

Yet despite the urgency the territory has fallen down on this most basic of services.

Every economist says overnight guests are, per visitor, vastly more valuable to the economy than cruise visitors. They spend much more on rooms, food, drink, shopping, transportation and souvenirs.

Many dozens, if not a few hundred people in the territory, make some income by renting rooms to overnight guests via Airbnb. One person who makes a significant portion of his income renting out a room in his Christiansted home to two young men who came over Christmas from Denmark for two weeks. They had just graduated the equivalent of high school and were taking a break. They were on a budget; spending $80 per night for a room and buying groceries and some meals out but trying to conserve. They couldn’t afford to rent a car for another $70 per day. So they largely stayed in Christiansted. They learned, by word of mouth, how to use the dollar taxis to get to Frederiksted – with a stopover at Sunny Isles. But of course, you have to get back by dusk.

With Uber, Lyft or a homegrown phone-based app they could have taken one or two trips at much less than the cost of renting a car. They could have seen a band at Rainbow Beach or reggae at Eat @ Cane Bay. Or even gone to Carambola and walked to the tidal pools.

How much busier would all these places be if there were some sort of reliable transportation like Lyft or Uber? How much busier would downtown Charlotte Amalie be? Or businesses all over St. Thomas, if visitors did not have to rely on random, unlicensed gypsy cabs or taxis that don’t take credit cards and are unavailable after dark?

How much more money would taxi drivers be able to make if visitors could hail them too via the Uber or Lyft apps, like some jurisdictions allow?

This fundamental lack of convenient transportation is obviously a big problem so why hasn’t anyone fixed it? Many Virgin Islanders believe taxi drivers – and taxi medallion owners, who are not the same people – are too powerful a lobby and have the senators running scared.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. And yet a bill to limit taxi medallion ownership to ONLY veterans, or “(sons) of the soil” as Marvin Blyden put it, has passed out of committee to be voted upon as law. It seems to me this is unconstitutional, and must be challenged in court. Certainly there were no dissenting voices saying as much in session. But then this self-serving group of people (senators, taxi drivers) care not about the populace at large. So much for improved taxi services to the locals and tourists. Never gonna happen when, not if, this law is passed. Senators know who they serve, and it ain’t the lowly citizens.

  2. I stayed one extra day on st john, turned in my rental jeep and opt. for taxi service. one picked us up in Cruz Bay rode us around town for a half hour picked up two young girls who told him they needed to stop at the deli for a sandwich,s after 15 minutes they came out with 6 more people and when it was finally time to leave one of them had to go back and use the bathroom . it took us an hour and a half to get to cinnamon beach. after being dropped off the driver said no taxi plus into the parking lot there in the evening so we waited out by the road when a taxi finally stopped to pick us up they hade to go down to Maho to pick up more guests that never showed up so finally a few couples got in and we got our ride back to town. me and my wife desided no more taxi for us ever waste too much of your vacation riding around looking for more customers.

  3. I’ve lived on St. John for ten years. When I’ve returned to island after time away, I got back to St. John around 10:00 PM. There were taxis driving by the dock area but none would take me home b up by Gifft Hill. They would only go to the Westin. I gave up after an hour and finally had to ask a drunk to drive me home, which he did. It’s terrible a person almost has to take their life in their hands to get home. I believe that if you are licensed to be a taxi and someone needs a ride, you should be REQUIRED to take them. Other wise get off the streets and let someone who wants the work, have it!

  4. I’d sign up as a driver after dark if there’s going to be a rideshare app, local or out of state. I’d also be interested in getting a taxi license if it’s more open rather than just veterans. Have quite a few friends that own taxi’s asking me why I don’t get my license. This article points out the reasons.

  5. I think UBER being here would be a disaster waiting to happen. Too many creepy people out there driving around, killing each other and flirting outrageously with tourists (at the very least), driving like grannies on valium and pretty much doing whatever they please to each other and the public in general. This place is scary as hell! I’ve been here 30 years and I wont go anywhere at night. It wasn’t always like this, but it is NOW!!!

  6. If the usvi can clean up thier act and get rid of corrupt officials in EVERY aspect of Goverment and tourism…then USVI would be in a postion to expand the need for uber and the like. People would stay longer if the gov. Cleaned up the neighborhoods ….not just leave abandoned and most always historical buildings. Yeah a hurricane or two ruined things….but they did get so much money to rebuild and go forward….ONLY THAT NO ONE BUT THE CROOKED GOV AND RICH BIZZ FOLKS SAW THE MONEY! IT WAS ALL POCKETED AND NOT USED FOR WHAT IT WAS INTENDED. THIS BY THE WAY IS THE BEHAVIOR THOSE FOLKS WANT TO CONTINUE SO THEY TRULY DO NOT FAVOR STATEHOOD….THEN THEY WOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE.

  7. We are from Ohio and visited St Thomas again on a cruise in February. We took the ferry to St John for the morning and wanted to walk around St Thomas to explore and shop in the afternoon. Unfortunately we had a very unpleasant experience with various taxi drivers hounding us every minute or two asking if we needed a ride back to the ship, despite the fact that it was obvious that we were trying to shop and enjoy being out and about and clearly were NOT seeking transportation. We felt absolutely harrassed.

    It was impossible to continue trying to visit businesses so we gave up and walked back to our ship. (We were way too annoyed to reward the rude behavior that cut our visit short and take a taxi.) If I were a business owner on St Thomas, I would be very concerned because the taxi drivers are literally curtailing business. We are no longer excited by the prospect of visiting St Thomas. Just thought thus outside observation might be helpful information.

  8. I think taxis here should be metered and also take credit cards. I cringe when I hear of the type of fees that groups of tourists pay when trying to get to town from the East End. It is not one fee for the ride irregardless of how many in the group, it is a fee per person. That can really add up.

    Meters might actually make the drivers more accountable in their declaration of income.

    The practice of stopping to add more persons as one goes towards the destination can be disconcerting. Perhaps that may be because of the prevalence of large vans rather than sedans. But this practice makes a taxi ride more similar to a stateside airport shuttle than a civilized ride for a private party.

  9. I’ve lived here 10 years and still get harassed on a regular basis by taxi drivers or gypsy drivers when out shopping or eating in St Thomas. This should be outlawed. I can only image how many tourists are annoyed and leave with a bad impression from this. Bring on Uber and Lyft!!
    Let the people of the VI and tourists decide if they want to use the service. After one year, there could be a vote to keep the services or reject them.

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