Moped bill goes before committee on Beacon Hill

Home rule petition would allow Oak Bluffs residents to have a say on banning rentals.

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A moped bill that would give Oak Bluffs an opportunity to prohibit moped rentals got a hearing at the State House Thursday. - Kelsey Perrett

The Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government met at the State House Thursday to hear testimony regarding a home rule petition to authorize Oak Bluffs to further regulate the rental of mopeds. If passed, the bill would allow Oak Bluffs residents to vote to prohibit commercial rental of mopeds at a special or annual town meeting.

A previous iteration of the bill was given favorable report by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, but ultimately failed to get a vote during the legislature’s last session of 2018

Mike Tierney and John Leone, representing Oak Bluffs rental companies King of Rentals of MV, Ride-On Mopeds, and Island Hoppers, were at the hearing to oppose the bill. Written testimony was submitted by the town of Oak Bluffs, but no speakers in favor of the bill were present. The town could not immediately provide the letter it sent, and town administrator Robert Whritenour is on vacation, according to an email.

Tierney opened his testimony by saying there is improved safety training, and the number of rental units has decreased from 607 to 178 mopeds. Mopeds on the Island are already well-regulated, he said, and are a safe and convenient way to promote tourism and alleviate parking and traffic concerns.

The committee then directed questions back to the opposition. Senate chair Rebecca Rausch said, “One of the things that we try hard to do is figure out the right balance between state and local power. There is an argument to be made that this is a decision for the town to make, and this bill simply provides the processing power that the town would need in order to conduct that vote.” She asked Tierney why the state legislature should not grant the town the right to “decide for itself.”

Tierney said a general resentment of tourism on the Island is the main reason most Islanders oppose mopeds. He also stated that he fears the banning of moped rentals could lead to “a slippery slope,” which could result in the banning of other tourist amenities like tour buses and bicycles. If this bill passes, he argued, other towns may then follow suit with their own home rule petitions. “If you pass this, you’ll have Nantucket and other towns asking for the same thing,” Tierney said.

Leone said, “There is always an assumption of risk in whatever you do.” He argued the rental to accident ratio is actually quite low: “Last summer, there were only 12 accidents, with close to 8,000 or 9,000 rentals.”

Leone also holds interest in a Block Island rental company. That Rhode Island community is under a court order that prevents the town of New Shoreham from introducing moped legislation. 

“What [the town of Oak Bluffs] is asking you to do is basically put us out of business,” Leone said. 

Rausch reminded the opposition that the bill would not specifically shut down their businesses, only allow the town to vote on the issue.

“It would be the death sentence,” Tierney said.
Rep. Jonathan Hecht followed with questions about where mopeds can be ridden, how fast, and what kind of training rental companies provide renters. 

Hecht said he sympathises with the situation of the rental companies, but he also can see why mopeds are a source of concern, and understands the frustration of the town at not being able to regulate modes of transportation. “But I wonder if the answer isn’t in some additional form of self-regulation in terms of what [rental companies] do and what the moped industry does to make it something that is inherently safer,” Hecht said.

Moped proponents John Leone, left, and Mike Tierney testify before a committee at the State House considering a home-rule petition for Oak Bluffs. – Kelsey Perrett

The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, were not present at Thursday’s hearing, but Fernandes told the Times in February that the bill likely has a “long way to go.”

If given a favorable report by this committee, the bill will need to go through two more House committees and three more Senate committees before it is taken to the floor for a vote.