Town Leaders Struggle to Place Controls on Taxi Fares With Little Success; for Consumers, Caveat Emptor

The debate has swirled for decades, and the issue seems to resurface every year during the hot summer months, when tourists are plentiful and taxicabs are flush with fares: why does the Island not have a uniform set of taxi regulations?

As far back as 1987 the All-Island selectmen's association endorsed a plan to set Islandwide cab rates, and in 1979 the same group promoted reciprocal taxi licensing among the six towns.

Both plans died on the vine.

In the confusing landscape of Island taxicab rules, there are two central components: fares and licensing.

Reciprocal licensing has been a hard sell for taxi owners and town selectmen, who worry that giving drivers free reign over the Island will encourage them to focus only on the hot spots, like downtown Oak Bluffs and the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven.

The idea of creating uniform Islandwide fares has found favor with everyone including taxi owners and town leaders.

It just hasn't happened yet.

Four Island towns license taxi companies: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury and Tisbury. 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 four towns save a few minor differences. Tisbury regulations, for example, include language about the parking spaces at the Steamship Authority, while Oak Bluffs regulations specify the locations of the town's 16 taxi stands.

The real variations come in the different ways that towns regulate fares. Edgartown and West Tisbury selectmen have an established fare schedule for taxis, while Oak Bluffs and Tisbury allow companies to set their own rates, subject to approval by the selectmen.

The result is a controlled chaos of sorts.

A cab ride from downtown Oak Bluffs to downtown Edgartown will cost between $15 and $18 if you take an Oak Bluffs-based cab. But if you call an out-of-town taxi to pick you up, which visitors often do, the cost of the trip can be as much as $3 more.

A cab ride from the Martha's Vineyard Airport to West Chop in an Edgartown-based taxi costs $25. The same ride costs between $18 and $20 in a cab hailing from Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury or Tisbury.

Then there are the extra charges for things like excess luggage, bicycles, dogs and driving on dirt roads.

Tisbury Taxi, based in Vineyard Haven, 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, AAA Taxi, charges $5 for dogs (although there is no extra charge for lap dogs and lap children), $5 for each bike, and $3 for every half-mile of dirt road.

Oak Bluffs-based Marlene's Taxi charges $6 for each bike and $2 per quarter mile after the first mile of dirt roads; while Oak Bluffs-based All Island Taxi charges between $1 and $10 for oversized or excess baggage, and between $2 and $10 for driving down dirt roads.

All fares are based on one or two people. Additional people (over two) cost $3 per person.

This summer, Edgartown selectmen approved a $3 fuel charge for travel out of Edgartown to help offset the rising cost of gas. The charge expires Nov. 13.

Different taxi companies also have different policies regarding late night fares. Some companies - such as All Island Taxi, the Oak Bluffs-based Tisbury Taxi Company, and Waterwheel Taxi - charge double rates after 1 a.m.; while Marlene's Taxi and Tisbury-based Stage Coach Taxi do not charge double until after 2 a.m.

Oak Bluffs-based Your Taxi increases its rates by 50 per cent between 1 and 1:30 a.m., and doubles its fares between 1:30 and 5 a.m.

The differences are not limited to the fare sheets. Many taxi drivers readily admit they often ignore the extra charges on the fare schedule for Island residents and their regulars.

"It's not favoritism. It's just good business," said one veteran driver who asked not to be identified. "If you try and get every last dollar out of someone - even if you're allowed to - they feel like they're getting screwed. They know how much they expect to pay."

Another driver, who also asked to remain anonymous, admitted the different taxi rates often lead to confusion and bad feelings between the driver and customer.

"If a guy takes a cab one day and it costs this amount, and then he takes a cab another day and it costs another amount, it doesn't look good. We all live on our tips, and if you got one guy charging more than everyone else, it looks bad for all of us," he said.

John S. Alley, the chairman of the Dukes County Commission and a former West Tisbury selectman, said establishing Islandwide taxi rates would be good for all.

"People don't understand what the rules are now. They get charged something different each time and they think something suspicious is going on. Having Islandwide rates would protect the taxis as much as it would protect the customers," Mr. Alley said, adding: "To use a bad pun, we need a fair set of fares."

Mr. Alley said the county has volunteered to establish Islandwide rates in the past, although towns have balked at the offer. He said taxi companies and town officials can be quite territorial.

"We've had people in the past say it was a good idea, but then one guy in one towns starts to worry that someone in another town is going to make an extra buck, and the whole thing falls apart," he said.

Adam Wilson, the former owner of Adam Cab, said he also supports Islandwide rates.

"What I don't understand is how one company can charge double rates after 1 a.m., which is when the bars close and everyone wants a taxi, while another doesn't charge double until after 2 a.m. It's like some of the companies get penalized for doing the right thing," he said.

Douglas Siple, the longtime owner of Marlene's Taxi, was once a staunch opponent of Islandwide taxi rates and a regional licensing system, but now he supports both. "The price of gas and insurance is way too high to keep doing things the way we are doing things right now. You have some drivers that are charging too much, while others are charging too little, and in the end it hurts business," he said.

Mr. Siple said the taxicab business is highly competitive and often cutthroat. "I don't know how these kids go out there and make a living. You can't blame them for piling in the fares, because it's the only way they can make a living," he said.