Selectmen in Oak Bluffs are spearheading an effort to create more uniform taxi regulations and fares, which among other things could end the practice of some companies doubling their rates after closing time for Island bars and nightclubs.
Selectmen have discussed the issue at two recent meetings, and chairman Ronald DiOrio has stated publicly that stopping double taxi fares after hours should be a priority. He said the practice discourages people from taking a cab after a night of drinking.
“We want to make it easier for people to get a taxi home, not more difficult,” Mr. DiOrio said. “We should explore any plan that gets someone off the road who has had too much to drink. That needs to be a priority.”
Mr. DiOrio said the issue is tailor-made for the recently reinvigorated all-Island board of selectmen. Under the leadership of chairman Denys Wortman, the all-Island group has discussed a wide rage of regional issues including refuse, transportation and taxi regulations.
The all-Island selectmen have tackled the issue of taxi cab regulations before. In 1987, the group endorsed a plan to set Islandwide cab rates, and in 1979 the same group promoted reciprocal taxi licensing among the six towns. But both times the plan died on the vine.
Mr. DiOrio said he believes there is a shift toward taking a collaborative approach to addressing regional issues. “I think there has been a change in the political landscape . . . people understand a regional approach is not only beneficial but essential,” he said.
Reciprocal licensing has been a hard sell over the years for both taxi owners and town selectmen. Five Island towns currently license taxi companies: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Tisbury and Aquinnah. Selectmen in each of those towns are responsible for taxi regulations, licensing and enforcement. The regulations, which establish basic guidelines about licensing and rules of conduct, are essentially the same in all five towns save a few minor differences.
Tisbury regulations, for example, include language about the parking spaces at the Steamship Authority.
The variations come in the different ways the towns regulate fares. Edgartown and West Tisbury selectmen have an established fare schedules for taxis, while Oak Bluffs and Tisbury allow companies to set their own rates, subject to approval by the selectmen. Aquinnah selectmen this year approved fares and regulations submitted by the town’s lone company, Aquinnah taxi.
Sixteen taxi companies operate more than 80 cabs on the Island during the summer. Some companies charge $20 for a ride from Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport; the same trip costs as little as $15 and as much as $24, depending on which company is called, a review of published taxi rates show.
Variations in fares are not limited to location. One Vineyard Haven company charges $3 for bikes and dogs, $2 per bag over two bags per person, and between $2 and $8 for driving on a dirt road. Another Tisbury-based company charges $5 for dogs, $5 for each bike, and $3 for every half-mile of dirt road. Different taxi companies also have different policies regarding late night fares. Some companies charge double rates after 1 a.m., while others do not charge double until after 2 a.m.
The idea of a single set of rules drew a mixed response from taxi drivers.
Julie Piccus of MV Taxi said it might work. “It would certainly end a lot of the cabbie drama,” she said. But a lone cabbie slumped at his wheel at the Oak Bluffs cab stand around 10:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday felt differently.
“I’ve been here 30 minutes now and I’d be unhappy if a Vineyard Haven cab showed up and grabbed a fare,” said the driver, who declined to identify himself.
Many drivers said a number of factors make it difficult to earn a living during the short summer season. Rusty Barberio, a former taxi owner and driver for over 20 years, said the growing popularity of the Vineyard Transit Authority has negatively affected business.
“Remember, the [transit authority] is subsidized and we are not. They are supposed to have routes, but they stop anywhere. They aren’t buses, they are cabs. If people don’t want to take a cab, that’s okay with me. But at least give us a level playing field,” he said.
Record-high fuel prices this year has been another problem for drivers, most of whom have to pay for their own gas. “You make your money and then you watch it all go right back into the tank . . . it makes you want to cry,” said one cabbie recently.
The issue of double fares after closing time also drew a mixed response.
Cyrus Ahalt of All Island Taxi said his company doesn’t charge double fares because it seems inappropriate. But he conceded some passengers make doing the right thing difficult.
“There is always this danger of people vomiting in the cab, you’d be surprised how often that happens. I tell [the passengers], it’s a hundred bucks if you throw up in the cab . . . hang your head out the window! And I’ve been pulled over more than once . . . a couple of people have passed out in the cab,” he said.
Jenn Ware of Tisbury Taxi said working the midnight shift can be downright scary. “As a female I’ve had a couple of scary experiences. It’s not worth it,” she said.
Chris Dacunto, owner of Tisbury Taxi, is a vocal opponent of the move to end double fares and the recent decision by Oak Bluffs selectmen to extend last call from 12:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., which extends the time patrons can stay in the bar from 1 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Mr. Dacunto said the change was made without input from taxi drivers and owners, who are now forced to stay on the road an extra hour with little incentive. “We provide a service in the middle of the night when everyone else is home asleep in their bed, and that service often means driving drunk people all over the Island.
“As it is now nobody likes working that shift. I am not sure what [stopping double fares] will accomplish,” he said.
Jack Shea, former staff writer for the Gazette and occasional contributor, provided additional reporting for this story.