Taxi drivers meet with Lt. Gov. Francis, above, at the St. John Legislative Annex in Cruz Bay on Thursday evening, April 3.
Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis listened carefully to the concerns of more than two dozen St. John taxi drivers at a meeting and promised action on retaining the iconic St. John safari taxis, like the ones pictured above on the Cruz Bay waterfront.
In his first meeting on St. John as a 2014 candidate for Governor, Lt. Governor Gregory Francis did not shy away from the thorniest political issue in a meeting with members of one of the strongest voting groups in the territory – the island’s taxi drivers.
In an impromptu meeting at the V.I. Legislature in Cruz Bay on Thursday night, April 3, Lt. Gov. Francis listened to the concerns of more than two dozen taxi medallion holders and drivers about the impact of a rule promulgated in 2009 by the V.I. Taxi Commission which seeks to force medallion holders to replace the islands’ iconic safari-style, open-air taxis with enclosed vans.
Francis promised action on the major issues raised by the St. John taxi drivers who said V.I. Taxi Commission regulations are unfairly restricting their business and threatening the island’s tourism industry by eliminating the safari-style open taxis preferred by visitors.
Commission Makes Policy, Not Laws
The V.I. Taxi Commission mandated in 2009 a moratorium on licensing new safari taxis built by island fabricators and installed on “incomplete” truck frames imported from the U.S. unless the so-called “after-market“ fabrication is certified as meeting federal standards for operation, according to Derrick Brown, Assistant Director of Motor Vehicles.
There are no after-market safari fabricators in the territory who can certify a finished safari, taxi officials admit. The supply of used safari bodies is dwindling as the existing ones deteriorate or are exported to the neighboring British Virgin Islands, taxi operators complained.
“My safari is basically falling apart,” said Dale Hendrickson. “I need to update my safari.”
“I can’t buy a new safari, but I can buy an old one,” another taxi driver complained. “Why should we have to buy an old safari to replace an old one, but not a new one? I can buy a 1990 safari, but not a new one.”
St. John Tourists Won’t Ride in Taxi Vans
The Taxi Commission is trying to force the taxi operators to switch to vans — which visiting tourists refuse to ride, according to the taxi drivers.
Of the 157 taxi licenses on St. John only three are vans, according to one taxi driver.
“People flat out refuse to ride in them,” said one taxi van driver. “The tourists are saying ‘Please. I don’t want to ride closed in.’”
“The tourists have no problem with safaris,” he added. “It’s unfair to me.”
“Safaris have been in operation for over 50 years. Check the record,” another driver told Francis. “There have been very few incidents.”
“This is what the tourists want,” another operator said. “Tourists love them.”
“It is my impression that the local government is trying to outlaw safaris,” said taxi medallion holder Raphael Wesselhoft.
“It is unique to the island and we should do what we can to keep the uniqueness,” said another taxi operator. “As long as a taxi driver is operating in a safe manner I think we can continue to drive these safaris in a safe manner.”
“Eventually we’re going to run out of used vehicles,” said another taxi driver.
“I’ve spent two months trying to buy a safari,” another driver told Francis. “They can’t be replaced.”
Exporting Dwindling Supply of Safaris
While St. John taxi medallion owners are looking for used safari bodies, they are being exported to the
British Virgin Islands from the U.S. Virgin islands, officials acknowledged.
“We are exporting them,” acknowledged St. Johnian Myrna George, an Assistant Director of the DMV.
“The issue comes down to a lack of certified welders in the territory to complete the fabrication,” George told Francis and the taxi drivers.
“We have no one in the territory that can certify a vehicle as complete,” said DMV’s George, who promised to contact U.S. truck manufacturers and remanufacturers to try to establish certified after-market manufacturing in the territory.
“It’s not impossible, but we don’t have anyone locally that is certified,” she said.
Limited Access to Taxi Licensing
The officials did promise to assist one St. John medallion owner who is a veteran in getting her son to be allowed to take the up coming licensing exam. Veterans and children of veterans who are already taxi medallion holders can take the licensing exam despite the continuing moratorium on taxi licenses for non-veterans.
The Lt. Governor also promised to get clarification of the Taxi Commission’s licensing rules which currently allow only military veterans and the children of military veterans who own taxi medallions to sit for the taxi licensing exam.
George reminded the St. John taxi drivers that she inherited a medallion from her late father in 2013 but is still waiting to be able to take the licensing test, to get a taxi operating license.
“I’m the assistant director and I can’t do it because there is a moratorium,” she told the audience. “The board (taxi commission) has the power that they can bring out policies.”
Francis, meanwhile, launched his gubernatorial campaign on St. John with a promise of action on the taxi issues.
“It’s a hardship on the operators from what I’m hearing,” agreed Francis, who said he would be meeting with the Chairman of the Taxi Commission on Friday, April 4. “We’re going to get to the bottom of what to do about getting members new safaris.”
“I don’t like to waste people’s time,” Francis told the taxi drivers. “I have a challenge before me and I guarantee it’s not going to take four years or four months.”