A regional approach to taxi rules and regs inches along

Members of the committee working to craft a set of rules said that Edgartown remains a speed bump.

Taxis await passengers at the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority terminal. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Martha’s Vineyard is six towns and six sets of taxi regulations. At a meeting Thursday last week, the All Island Regional Taxi Committee, a small working group that includes town and regional officials, police, and taxi company owners, met in the conference room of the Oak Bluffs Police Department to discuss how taxi regulations might be made more uniform across the Island.

The meeting focused on a set of recommendations drafted by Aquinnah town administrator Adam Wilson, a former taxi owner, and a multi-town taxi rules spreadsheet compiled by Martha’s Vineyard Commission planner Bill Veno.

“Although each of the towns require licensed cab companies to engage in off the street business only in their towns,” Mr. Wilson said in his recommendations, “it’s an industry given that when a driver is dropping off in a location other than the town he is licensed in, and is queried as to his availability, if he’s able, he’s going to provide the ride. What he cannot do is use the excuse that he’s an ‘out of town’ cab, and therefore charge whatever he feels like charging to the unassuming passenger(s).”

Mr. Wilson said that in addition to the posted cab fares regulated by the licensing town, an additional fare sheet should be posted that lists the maximum fare schedule for Island-wide taxi service.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me to have five towns with rules that are not uniform and rate structures that are not uniform,” Oak Bluffs selectman and meeting moderator Walter Vail said. (Chilmark has no licensed cabs.)

“I think rates are the biggest nut to crack,” said Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel.

Whether or not to push to meter taxis was a major point. One question was how to address Island taxi vans.

“We’re the only place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where vans can be taxis, said Mr. Wilson. “Otherwise they would be buses.”

“It’s almost like there are two different services,” said Leslie Clapp, Executive Director for the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living. “One is kind of like a shuttle, which we’re all familiar with when you go to an airport and you’re picked up by a hotel shuttle. Then you’ve got the cab service, which is more individual. So it seems to me with posting fares, the big vans, you know, should post the fares as shuttle fares. It’s not a taxi, it’s a shuttle really.”

Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said unwitting passengers, especially those who may have time constraints, can be forced to spend too much time on van rides, essentially becoming captive to the drop-offs of other folks.

“I think there’s a problem not only with the rates and how you charge people when you have multiple people going to multiple destinations,” said Ms. Thornton, “but also that the people understand that if I want to go from Oak Bluffs to the Hot Tin Roof [now Flat Bread], I’m gonna go to here, there, and over and I’m gonna be at Hot Tin Roof in 45 minutes instead of 20 minutes from Oak Bluffs.

Ms. Thornton recommended that drivers be required to describe their drop-off schedule. Your Taxi company co-owner Diane Habekost said she understood the sentiments behind metering traditional cabs, but she balked at the idea of meters for both taxi vans and taxi cars, saying the nature of van drop-offs defies metering. She added that if vans were discontinued it would be a logistical fiasco because areas like the Steamship authority terminals don’t have enough physical space to accommodate the scores of cars that would have to replace vans.

“The people don’t understand how meters will affect us, but I know why they’re asking,” said Ms. Habekost. “Because they feel like they’re getting ripped off constantly.”

The physical condition of the cabs and the appearance of drivers was also a topic of discussion. Although all the towns prohibit commercial advertising on cabs and all require a visible taxi license number, according to Mr. Veno’s spreadsheet, only Tisbury has lettering and numbering identification parameters for taxis beyond those requirements. Oak Bluffs is the only town to require that cabbies wear a collared shirt. The variances can make for difficulty when passengers need to identify who transported them.

“A lot of times people get into a situation where something happens and they don’t even remember the cab company,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t even know who it was they were riding with.”

Asked what options aggrieved passengers currently have in Oak Bluffs, police chief Erik Blake said that enforcing the rules isn’t simple. He said a cabbie who violates the regulations could receive a bylaw ticket and be brought in front of the selectmen for a license hearing based on a filed complaint.

He said he is more likely to hear complaints from other drivers rather than passengers.

Mr. Vail and Mr. Israel said they do not relish fielding questions and complaints at town taxi hearings. “I haven’t had one in a long time [a cab hearing], they’re not fun,” Mr. Israel said. “They’re kind of like dog hearings. I’d love to see some kind of body outside of ourselves that would deal with that.”

“They’re awful,” Mr. Vail said.

Mr. Vail stressed the importance of passenger safety. “I’m thinking how do passengers get into a cab and know that that cabby is licensed in the proper fashion — that he’s not some guy who’s gonna drive ‘em off into the woods and steal all their money,” he said. “How do they know that? And can they have the confidence that every cabby here operates with the same rules and regulations. That he or she is dressed properly and is polite and obeys all the rules and if they don’t I think we’re not doing a good service to the people who come to this Island.”

“We [Tisbury] require a CORI,” said Mr. Israel. “We send it down to the police station so they do all the checking on somebody who’s going to be getting a license. If there’s drugs or drunken driving I think it’s an automatic minimum two years before you can come back to us for a license.”

Mr. Vail said that, should the towns agree on uniform regulations, the next step would be to consider the regulatory mechanism, perhaps an all-Island taxi commission.

“Right now what we want to see are some uniform regulations town by town,” he said. “But we haven’t got a lot of agreement from the All Island Selectmen that there ought to be an all-Island taxi commission or a Martha’s Vineyard Taxi Commission. We haven’t gotten that far.”

Ms. Thornton suggested that those who could agree move forward. “Even if you leave one or two towns out,” she said, “if the rest can unify it, it would be a great improvement. And as we know with other things, usually the rest of the towns follow if they see it’s a good thing.”

“Start with Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven,” said Mr. Vail. “And then add Edgartown if they would come along. I think we’ve got to find a way to start this process and push Edgartown into moving along on this. If they’re going to fight it all along, I don’t know.”

“There is no way that Edgartown today, in my opinion, would accept some kind of regional body doing their cab thing” Mr. Israel said. “But if we start to show this is working we might [then] be able to go to the Edgartown selectmen.”

The committee plans to present the draft set of rules and regulations at a future meeting of the All Island Selectmen.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Your Taxi co-owner Diane Habekost as owner Diane Cape.