Sen. Janelle Sarauw, chair of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, said she knew a bill requiring taxi drivers to implement an electronic monetary payment system would be contentious, but before the Friday hearing was over Sen. Myron Jackson was questioning whether the whole discussion was even necessary.
He pointed to two items on the V.I. Taxi Cab Commission website. One item said the commission had partnered with FirstBank V.I. to give drivers the ability to accept credit cards for payment by passengers. It said, “EverPay mPOS transforms your smartphone or tablet into a point of sale terminal, where you can process card payment transactions at any place, anytime.”
The second item referred to CARICAB. CARICAB, according to the website, is approved by the commission and gives drivers the ability to take credit card payments from passengers. Its description says “CARICAB turns your smartphone or tablet into a digital dispatch that will send you passengers’ locations, when they request a taxi cab ride. When the driver accepts the ride requests and picks up the passenger, the driver is paid automatically once they drop off the passenger at their destination.”
The difference between what is on the website and what is in the bill proposed by Sen. Kurt Vialet, is the bill would make it mandatory for taxi cab drivers to accept credit cards.
And that was what the representatives of the taxi drivers said they were against.
Bruce Flamon, an independent taxi driver and a founder of a the Virgin Islands tour guide association, said the measure was “being jammed down taxi drivers throats.”
Nilsa Serrano, who has been a taxi driver for more than a dozen years, testified she was not against taxi drivers having the the ability to take credit card payments, she just did not like the way the Senate was making it mandatory.
Senators said, even though they understood the concerns of the taxi drivers, it was the Senate’s job to enhance the tourist product on the islands so all the residents could benefit.
Sen. Steven Payne said the first things he heard at the Sea Trade Global Cruise Conference he attended this year were complaints about St. Thomas being too crowded and its taxi drivers not taking credit cards.
Serrano said taxis have to discharge passengers quickly at the airport and also downtown Charlotte Amalie and there is barely time to collect cash from passengers. Sometimes some will walk away without paying, she said.
If the bill is implemented, “We will have more confusion, more congestion and more traffic,” Serrano said.
Sen. Novelle Francis introduced the bill at the meeting Friday, standing in for Vialet who is not a member of the Committee. Francis said he recognized the argument the taxi drivers were making – that minimal time collecting from passengers was important. However, he added the Virgin Islands had “to step up its game.” He said cruise lines were moving their ships away from the Caribbean to Europe and “we are here arguing about credit cards.”
The taxi drivers and the senators also disagreed on the timing of the bill. Serrano said the senators “just threw the bill” at the taxi drivers without any discussion. She invited senators to come on a cruise ship day and watch the operations of the taxis and see the problems they encountered. Sarauw countered that the bill had been under discussion for decades.
Sen. Athneil “Bobby” Thomas brought up the possible challenge taxi drivers could face if Uber came to the Virgin Islands.
Uber is a ride-sharing service that relies on smartphone technology to dispatch drivers and manage fees. Unlike taxi services, Uber drivers do not possess special licenses; rather, they use their personal vehicles to offer discounted-fare rides.
Thomas said that many locations had fought Uber, but Uber had prevailed in most cases.
Payne said the Senate would “stop Uber and all” from coming into the islands but added that maybe taxi drivers had become “complacent” since they had a “monopoly.”
Besides Uber there is Lyft. It is a similar system but along with offering car rides, it has a scooters and a bicycle-sharing system.
The bill was moved forward to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation. Sarauw, Francis and Jackson voted favorably for the bill. Sens. Payne and Javan James voted Nay. Sens Alicia Barnes and Kenneth Gittens were absent from the hearing.