This summer, Sen. Celestino White sponsored four bills Nos. 29-0377, 29-0378, 29-0391 and 29-0394, that would grant exclusive franchises to operate all public taxicab service at each of four marine or air terminals.
On October 3, these bills came before the 29th Legislature’s Committee on Government Operations, Energy and Veteran’s Affairs Wednesday. The USVI Hotel and Tourism Association and the St. Croix Hotel Association, which represent thousands of business owners and their employees who would be affected by this legislation, were not invited to testify. The 10,000 people working in the hospitality industry and the allied businesses that support it depend on our tourism product, including transportation, being competitive with other destinations. Nor were the Department of Tourism, VI Port Authority, or Chamber of Commerce asked to participate. No local residents other than five taxi associations and the Taxi Commission were asked to offer their opinions on the proposed bills. Moreover, the hearing was held on St. Croix making it difficult for interested parties from St. Thomas and St. John, the islands with the largest number of visitors who would be affected by the legislation, to participate. In their rush to push this legislation through, without any input from significant stakeholders, Committee members White, Hansen, Millin-Young and Nelson voted to bypass the Rules Committee and send the bills straight to the full Senate.
Tourism relies on efficient, reliable and cost-effective transportation infrastructure and services to support growth and development. Transportation options have a profound effect on a visitor’s experience. When visitors arrive at the airport, they expect the transportation choices they would find at other airports and they expect courteous service. Our visitors, and our citizens, effectively have only two unsatisfactory choices. We don’t have taxi service here like other destinations. Instead, upon arrival at the airport, visitors are forced to accept sitting in a 15-passenger van, often for unacceptably long periods of time, while the van fills up. Then they must endure stops at multiple locations prior to arriving at their destination. Elsewhere, this would be called a shuttle service. Here, if you demand point-to-point taxi service, it will cost you between two to four times the “shuttle” option depending on the number of people. For many people, that is no choice at all.
We are in competition with other destinations where visitors have a greater range of options and can choose the form of transportation that suits them. Some people want private limousine service while others are satisfied to travel with strangers and make multiple stops en route to their destinations in return for a lower price. To be competitive, we need options like those offered at other major airports, including, but not limited to, affordable shuttle service with multiple stops, affordable point-to-point taxi service, and limousine options. And regardless of the type of transportation, we must have courteous service. An exclusive 10-year franchise with the possibility of a 10-year renewal will not accomplish those goals. Federal Aviation Administration regulations in fact generally prohibit such long-term, exclusive franchises. Proceeding down this path likely will jeopardize federal funding for the airports.
The Senate should stay out of the business of issuing exclusive franchises and allow the Port Authority, as manager of the airports and marine terminals, to negotiate contracts that ensure the availability of multiple categories of transportation and excellent customer service. If not, we risk losing our visitors to other destinations that are satisfying the expectations of knowledgeable travelers.
Write and call the Senators and tell them to vote “no” when these bills come before them in November.
St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix Hotel & Tourism Association’s Board of