Taxi fares, regs vary from town to town
Same day, same time, same passenger, no pets and one small suitcase. A Times reporter paid a fare of $25 for a taxi ride from Alley's General Store in West Tisbury to the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven, a distance of 7.2 miles. The reverse trip by taxi, from the ferry to Alley's cost $20.
In each case, the respective taxi companies - Mario's in West Tisbury and Stagecoach Taxi in Vineyard Haven - charged a fare that fell within the terms of their town-issued licenses.
The fares and business practices of the Island's 13 taxi companies are a staple of Island conversation, and from time to time a subject for action by town officials, who are called upon to balance the interests of consumers and taxi company owners.
The Island's taxi landscape is made complex by the fact that each town's selectmen are responsible for licensing and regulating taxis that operate from their town. The respective police departments in each town are responsible for the licensing of individual taxi drivers and inspecting each vehicle.
Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury have approved taxi regulations that govern the practices and fares of taxi companies licensed to do business in each town.
Aquinnah has one licensed taxi company but has established no regulations or standard rates. Chilmark has no licensed taxi companies and no regulations.
While there are similarities, regulations vary from town to town, mostly with respect to fare structures. Oak Bluffs also has the distinction of being the only town that allows cab companies to charge a "vomit" fee.
The Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission also issues annual permits to any taxi company wishing to operate at the airport that is properly licensed in the town where the business is headquartered. Airport permits cost $1,500 per year, according to the airport financial administrator Elaine Graves.
A review by The Times of taxi regulations reveals that there are similar rules in the four towns providing official guidance. Taxi drivers may pick up passengers anywhere on the Island when the company receives a telephone call requesting a pickup.
Only drivers for companies licensed to operate in a town may pick up passengers at that town's designated taxi stands.
All of the regulating towns allow the taxi drivers to pool passengers and charge each the full fare. At a taxi stand drivers have the right to stand and wait to see if they can fill up their van before departing. The regulations do not address whether a rider can demand that the driver leave the stand with only one passenger or less than a full load, however.
Island residents or frequent visitors may, over time, find a taxi company they prefer and then arrange rides with that company in advance. However, when walking up to a taxi stand anywhere on the Island, the traveler is required to use the first vehicle in the line, and drivers are required to take that passenger whether traveling one mile or across the Island, according to the regulations.
Drivers cannot solicit rides from pedestrians. However, if a taxi company is licensed to do business in a town and a pedestrian flags down the driver, he or she may stop.
While the rule is clear - outside of responding to a telephone call, a company can pick up passengers in a town only where it is licensed - in practice the rule is difficult to enforce, officials and drivers said.
Regulations in the four towns require that fares be "available" or "visible" to the passengers. The posted rate may not necessarily be the maximum allowed by the selectmen.
In addition to the rules the towns share, there are rules that set the operations apart.
Town rates vary
Taxi companies are required to file their rate schedule, along with their license renewal application, each spring. In Edgartown, West Tisbury, and Tisbury the selectmen establish the maximum fares allowed for any and all of the companies licensed there.
In Oak Bluffs, each taxi company submits its own rate schedule for approval by the selectmen along with its license application or renewal.
Tisbury has six standard rates for fares that originate at the Steamship Authority taxi stand; for example, from Tisbury to the Gay Head cliffs in Aquinnah is a $60 fare for the 19-mile trip. From the ferry to Chilmark (specifically Squibnocket Beach) the allowed fare is $45.
West Tisbury also provides set rates. For example, a passenger riding to or from the airport and the Lambert's Cove Inn would be charged $35. From the inn to Vineyard Haven the fare is $30, and to Oak Bluffs $40. The taxi fare from the airport to the Youth Hostel is $15, from the Youth Hostel to either Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs it is $30, and selectmen allow companies to charge $55 for a ride from the airport to the Gay Head cliffs.
Only Edgartown utilizes a zoned rate card so any taxi licensed to operate in Edgartown must charge a maximum of $50 to and from Aquinnah, for example. According to the Edgartown rate sheet, a passenger traveling from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs may be charged between $15 and $17.
Because Oak Bluffs taxi company fares are approved individually, fares vary between companies. For example, the fare for a ride in an Oak Bluffs licensed taxi from Vineyard Haven to the Gay Head cliffs is $50 when traveling with Your Taxi and $70 in a Tisbury Taxi or MV Taxi cab.
The fare in an Oak Bluffs licensed taxi between Menemsha and Edgartown is approximately $31 in a Your Taxi cab and $50 in an MV Taxi cab.
Your Taxi and Big Cab Company charge $5 and $7 respectively for a short ride from the Oak Bluff's taxi stand to or from the Martha's Vineyard Hospital emergency room, a 29 percent discrepancy.
Passengers have every reason to be confused when taking a taxi ride to and from one location. For example, based on the respective rates allowed by each town, a trip from the town center in West Tisbury to town center in Edgartown would cost up to $22, while the return trip from Edgartown to West Tisbury could cost up to $30.
From the airport to Edgartown, the Edgartown rate card allows for a fare of $20. From the airport to Edgartown, the West Tisbury rate card allows a $22 fare. The Chilmark licensed taxis taking a rider from Edgartown to airport may charge anywhere from $16 to $24.
Depending on the town, the amount that a passenger may be charged for luggage varies. In Edgartown the regulation states that the passenger may be charged $2 per bag after three bags per person. In Oak Bluffs passengers may be charged from $1-$10 per bag after two per passenger and, in West Tisbury, a rider with "excessive" luggage may not be charged "more than $10 per fare."
Oak Bluffs licensed taxis may charge customers $2-$5 per bike. In Edgartown the charge is $3 and in West Tisbury $4. In Edgartown a passenger may be charged $3 for a dog.
Only the Oak Bluffs regulations state an allowed charge for transporting golfers, with clubs, ranging from $12-$16. And only the Oak Bluffs regulations spell out a $2-$15 range of costs for traveling down a dirt road.
Oak Bluffs cab drivers, according to the regulations, are permitted to charge a customer a "vomit" surcharge: $50 for vomiting outside a taxi, $100 for vomiting inside the taxi.
Late night travel can significantly add to the cost of a night out on the town for patrons in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. Both towns allow taxi companies to double the fare for late night service.
However, in Edgartown "late night" is defined as between 2 am and 7 am. In Oak Bluffs, each of the town's five licensed companies defines "late night" differently beginning as early as 1 am and ending as late as 7 am.
The Times also looked at Nantucket, which supports 40 livery companies and 60-plus taxis. Nantucket's 2009 rates and contact information are posted on the Nantucket town website.
Polite and helpful
Recently, Times reporters took several taxi rides to see firsthand how the regulations are applied. From the M.V. airport to the Clarion Hotel in Edgartown, in a Bluefish taxi, the fare was $22. As required by the licensing town regulations, the van was "clean both inside and outside." The vehicle was "well painted" and had "no visible rust, primer, safety defects or dents larger than 20 square inches by one half inch deep." The driver was "dressed in a neat and clean fashion" and wearing "closed-toed footwear." The required fare card was tucked inside a seatback pocket.
Less than an hour later, the reporter called from the Clarion Hotel for a Stagecoach taxi to return to the airport. Again the fare was $22, the van was neat and the driver's attire met the requirements of the regulations.
On another ride from West Tisbury to the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal, the Mario's taxi driver conducted himself in the "courteous and professional manner," as the regulations require.
On these rides the drivers inquired if the passenger would need a return ride, handed out a business card and offered to be available when needed.
The Times reporter waited until the next ferry arrived at the SSA terminal in Tisbury to take the return trip to West Tisbury. The first of four taxis in the taxi stand line was a Stagecoach van. The passenger was offered a seat to wait to see if there would be any additional passengers. However, after a five-minute wait there were no other passengers and the van left for West Tisbury. During the brief ride the driver explained that during the winter months she also drives a school bus.
Many of the complaints regarding taxi practices are anecdotal. For example, a West Tisbury resident traveling on the SSA ferry said that he was charged twice the usual fare from his home to Edgartown because, as the taxi driver reportedly told him, the road the passenger lives on has speed bumps and so the driver had to go especially slowly.
Another Edgartown resident said that when she and her husband get off the ferry together they are told the taxi fare is $20 to their destination yet if two people get off the ferry at the same time each going to same specific destination they are each charged $20.
Town officials told The Times that passengers who want to make a complaint should contact the town's police department armed with the name of the taxi company and the cab number.
Island police officials told The Times that riders rarely take the time to file complaints.
Oak Bluffs Police Sgt. George Fisher said that complaints "more often are driver to driver," such as when one driver thinks another driver has violated policies like rotating spots in the taxi stands, grabbing a fare or refusing to take a local ride in favor of a more lucrative out-of-town rider.
Tisbury Police chief Dan Hanavan said that his department rarely receives consumer complaints. More often complaints come from drivers if another driver violates the rules and steals a fare or refuses to take a local fare. And, on occasion the department gets involved with problems "like a drunk customer who doesn't want to pay a fare," Chief Hanavan said.
"West Tisbury isn't the center of the taxi universe," Jennifer Rand, the town's executive secretary said. Ms. Rand said she might receive one complaint per year, on average. Typically, I hear that the charge is a different amount of money for the same trip or that the customer was charged too much."
There is no taxi stand in West Tisbury. "If we had a taxi stand the complaints would quadruple," Ms. Rand said.
The Times contacted six taxi companies to discuss taxi regulations and fare structures. Only Bluefish Taxi owner Gary Davidson responded to a request for an interview. Bluefish is licensed in West Tisbury and has a permit to operate at the airport as well.
Mr. Davidson said, "It is ridiculous to have different rates for different towns, they are the maximums anyway and the companies can back off the rates if they want." He said in Oak Bluffs a taxi company can charge whatever they want but in West Tisbury he cannot charge for extras. "It doesn't make sense to dictate to the companies what they can charge, or how I can run my business," he said.
Mr. Davidson thinks taximeters are an "undoable" alternative since vans often carry multiple fares. "How would you divide up what they owe?" he asked. According to Mr. Davidson, the meters cost $4,000 to purchase and install and would require a single fare system so rates would have to go way up. "It is not a good idea, nor feasible," he said.
Mr. Davidson added that the flat rate structure "benefits the consumer" because then traffic problems causing extra travel time are "our problems."
As a result of consumer complaints the All Island Selectmen appointed a two-man committee of Jeff Kristal of Tisbury and Duncan Ross of Oak Bluffs to review the existing town regulations and rates in order to draft a unifying policy and rate plan.
Mr. Kristal told The Times the goal is to have the plan before the All-Island Selectmen in the spring. Then it would be up to the boards of selectmen in each town to adopt the Island-wide system of taxi regulation and a universal rate sheet for the island that could be used in the summer of 2010.
"We want the system to be fair and uniform so that the customers can understand it and right now we do not have that in all the towns," Mr. Kristal said.
Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC), the Island's powerful regional permitting body, agreed. "An Island-wide consensus would be desirable," he said.
The draft Island Plan recommends standardized taxi regulations and rates. Mr. London said that part of the problem is that taxis cannot pick up in another town so there are a lot of one-way trips. A coordinated dispatching system between the companies makes sense, he said.
"The first thing that needs to happen is for the towns to come together and decide the way they want to go, and figure out realistic goals," Mr. London said. He said the MVC has volunteered to help. "It becomes more complicated than you would think when people get into it," he said.