Taxi companies want Uber, Lyft to play fair

While cabs are regulated, the other transportation companies get a free ride on Island.

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Michael Mszanski, vice president of Martha's Vineyard Taxi, is calling on Island leaders to help level the playing field for cab companies versus Uber and Lyft. — Stacey Rupolo

Cab companies on Martha’s Vineyard say they are fighting for their survival.

At an all-Island selectmen’s meeting last Thursday, Michael Mszanski, vice president of Martha’s Vineyard Taxi, made a presentation that he’s promising to take on the road to individual boards. In a nutshell, he’s asking the Island’s towns to help level the playing field for taxi companies that pay license fees, excise taxes, and airport fees and then compete against drivers from Uber and Lyft, who have no such expenses and sometimes arrive on Island just to drive during the busy tourist season and then vanish to other resort towns.

There is a $3.5 million pie for all the people needing rides, and the share for taxi companies, owned locally and hiring local employees, is getting thinner.

“We’ve had a failure to articulate our issues in the past,” Mr. Mszanski told The Times in a conversation the day after his meeting with the all-Island board. “We’re making the case for regulatory action against Uber and Lyft. We’re trying to be more organized, smarter, and determined.”

The Island’s cab companies are working together, trying to present a unified front. “This is an industry killer,” said Califfe Singh, owner of Adam Cab. “We’re not all playing by the same rules.”

Mr. Singh, an Edgartown resident, has to lease space to park his fleet of 10 vans. Because they are commercial vehicles in Edgartown, he can’t save money by parking them at his home address, he said.

Adam Cab has to pay $8,500 a year for insurance on each one of its vans. Even though they’re old and battered, he’s still paying for them and has loans he’s repaying after buying the business in 2015.

“They have no costs. They use their own cars,” Mr. Singh said. “We can’t compete for drivers.”

Alix Anfang, a spokesman for Uber, in an email to The Times pointed to studies that show taxis and services like Uber complement each other. “Since launching on Martha’s Vineyard, Uber has seen overwhelming demand from residents and visitors who want an affordable, reliable ride home as well as drivers who want access to flexible earning opportunities,” she wrote.

Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.

Both Mr. Singh and Mr. Mszanski pointed out that an ad for Lyft offering incentives for drivers is the first thing that pops up when you Google “Martha’s Vineyard” and “taxi” on a mobile device.

“They’re poaching our drivers,” Mr. Singh said.

On Monday, it was just Mr. Singh and his wife available to drive for Adam Cab. Over the summer, he had drivers for only seven of his 10 cabs. “It used to be a good job for a college kid,” he said. Now, they choose Uber or Lyft because they can work when they want to work and not at set times. While he was talking on his cell phone, Mr. Singh picked up a call from a customer who wanted him to provide a ride at a set time the next day. “We do appointments,” he said. “If you have an early flight or late ferry, you can’t count on Uber.”

Representatives of three taxi companies say they know of drivers who have had their taxi licenses revoked only to wind up driving for Uber. They declined to name names. Edgartown revoked the licenses of two drivers in the past six months — one who admitted sufficient facts to a drunken driving charge and the other who admitted to driving with a child on his lap.

The Times asked Ms. Anfang, the Uber spokeswoman, about a specific individual, and she denied he drives for Uber. In an email, she wrote, he “does not have access to the Uber app.” Asked a follow-up question if he ever did, the spokeswoman did not respond on the record.

Melaney West of Stagecoach Taxi wrote in an email that taxi companies don’t fear companies like Uber and Lyft. They just want regulations to be enforced consistently.

“There needs to be a concerted effort, locally, to enforce the necessary oversight already in place in each of the towns who regulate taxis,” she wrote. “Certainly, no one believes that a person who fails to meet a town’s minimum requirements as a taxi operator, should then be allowed to use a loophole in the system and provide the same services for a ride-hailing company.”

Reached Monday, Arthur Smadbeck, chairman of the Edgartown board of selectmen, said he was not aware of any driver who was back on the roads providing rides after his board revoked a taxi license.

“There is no way for us to find that out. We regulate the taxis,” he said. “We have incorporated Uber drivers. We haven’t had great success in regulating them.”

 

Airport fees knocked out by state law

In June 2016, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport agreed to allow Lyft to service passengers at the airport by paying an annual fee of $1,700. Uber would have had to pay it, too. Instead, the state legislature passed a law in August of that same year that took control out of the commission’s hands before the airport could collect a penny. So-called transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft are regulated at the state level, and only airports governed by Massport, like Logan Airport in Boston, are allowed to impose regulations.

M.V. Airport charges taxi companies $1,500 a year to have access to the airport to pick up and drop off passengers. “The idea was we wanted to charge all ground transportation companies the same and treat them the same,” Ann Richart, airport manager, said. “Whatever fees apply to taxis would also apply to transportation network companies.”

Instead, Uber and Lyft are picking up and dropping off passengers during the peak season without contributing anything, she said. Eventually, she would like to use technology to charge all companies on a per fare basis.

“Uber is always eager to work with local leaders to find solutions that improve the experience for riders and drivers,” Ms. Anfang wrote.

Uber uses something called “surge” pricing, which is based on supply and demand, Ms. Anfang said in a brief telephone interview. Depending on how many requests they get, for example when a ferry or plane arrives, the price goes up.

That happens at closing time for bars, too, Mr. Singh said. Some people have reported spending as much as $80 to go from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs late on a weekend night using Uber or Lyft.

“Customers are getting screwed,” said Mr. Singh, who, like his taxi competitors, can charge only a set rate approved by the licensing board. “It’s predatory and exploitive,” Mr. Mszanski said.

Taxi companies found a sympathetic ear in Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, chairman of the all-island board and a former cab driver in Boston. “I totally get what these guys are saying. I would like to see, at a minimum, some type of fee for Uber drivers,” Mr. Israel said.

The best approach for the taxi companies might be to do what was been done in the past when Dunkin’ Donuts attempted to open on Island. “Nobody went, and eventually they left,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

Right now, this appears to be an issue for the taxi companies, not the public, he said. “No one has come to the board of selectmen and complained about Uber surge pricing,” he said. “In fact, no one has come to complain about Uber, except the taxi companies.”

Unless towns don’t join the effort, they’ll lose out on the license fees and the excise taxes, Mr. Singh warned. “If something is not done, we’re going to cease to exist,” he said. “It is hard. We have a short season with a year-round bill. It’s too much.”