TAXI DRIVERS, TOUR OPERATORS TO MEET ON BILL

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Oct. 15, 2001 – A controversial bill to prevent water tour operators from picking up their cruise ship passengers at docks on St. Thomas and St. Croix has been put on hold temporarily by its sponsors, Sens. Celestino A. White Sr. and Norma Pickard-Samuel.
In the meantime, a meeting of all parties who would be affected by the legislation will be held on St. Thomas at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22, at the V.I. Taxi Association building in Contant.
White said on Monday morning that he decided to hold the bill after Rik Van Rensselaer, V.I. Marine Industries Association vice president, discussed the impending legislation with him last week. "Rik came forward, came to see me," White said. "We had a good meeting. I know that his only interest is only to do right -– not to say that everybody sees it his way."
White continued, "He was so convincing that I took the bill off the agenda for the time being. I called Eustace Grant, and I asked him for a meeting with all parties concerned." Grant is president of the V.I. Taxi Association.
The bill had been scheduled to be heard at a Wednesday meeting of the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee.
White cautioned, "My position remains the same, and so does Senator Samuel's, to all intents and purposes." But, he added, "I will listen and offer input, and I want the members of the taxi association to do the same. My only thing is the playing field needs to be leveled -– it's stacked against the small taxi operators who are looked on as someone without stature. I'm going to be looking out for their interests."
Van Rensselaer said he was encouraged by his meeting with White. "There has been enough controversy and problems over this that we need to take steps toward resolution and the removal of some of the more onerous parts of the bill," he said. "It could be disastrous for the tourism industry. We need to develop a win/win siutation."
He said, "Senators White and Samuel sat me down and grilled me for an hour big time. I put our case on the table, and White called Sen. Donald Cole [chair of Planning and Environmental Protection] and told him to take the bill off the agenda for Wednesday, and he called Grant and arranged the meeting."
Van Rensselaer added, "They don't necessarily agree with our position, but they agree we need to discuss it with all parties." He added, "Since this thing exploded, we have been trying to get the private and public sectors to partner and get together on this, including the taxi drivers, the tour operators, the hotel associations and chambers of commerce, the Charter Yacht League, The West Indian Co. and the Tourism Department. We've been trying to pin down Grant for two weeks."
Van Rensselaer said Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, who held a hearing in January to consider ways to assist the ailing V.I. marine industry, will "probably be a major positive player in helping change the legislation, along with several other senators whom we've talked to."
Sen. Roosevelt David said he would assist with changing the legislation, Van Rensselaer said. David's Saturday morning radio show on WVWI Radio follows the "Radio One Marine Report," where host Wally Bostwick on Saturday had Van Rensselaer as his guest to discuss the legislation.
The legislation states in part: "No person operating a motor boat or vessel engaged in water tours shall dock or tie up at The West Indian Co. dock, the Crown Bay pier, the Ann Abramson Pier, or the Gallows Bay dock to pick up or discharge passengers on any days when one or more cruise ships are docked at or tied up at the docks or piers listed in this subsection."
Proponents of the bill have stated that taxis could transort passengers from The West Indian Co. dock to the Charlotte Amalie waterfront for pickup, Van Renssalaer said. Doing this, he explained, would not only further tie up the already congested downtown waterfront but would cut by half the economic benefits of the cruise ship passengers to the territory. As it is now, the tour operators make two trips a day, allowing the passengers the other half of the day to shop or take land tours.
Under the proposed legislation, he said, it would take visitors an extra 45 minutes to get to the tour departure site, and operators would be able to make only one trip a day, cutting by half both their income and passengers' ability to do all they would like while in port.
Anyone wanting to take a water tour and then shop or tour on land would be dropped off downtown, wet and sandy, to await a taxi to take them back to the ship, where they would have to change clothes and then take another taxi back downtown to shop. This they would probably not do, Van Rensselaer said.
The economic considerations are far reaching, he said. One-half the trips by the tour operators would mean one-half the gross receipts from the business and one-half the income taxes for the crews, as well as one-half the money pumped back into the economy for crew wages, provisions, fuel and marine repairs.
The legislation would add to excursion costs, too, Van Rensselaer said. He noted that water tours are sold ahead of time on the ships, and the V.I. tours compete with those of the other Caribbean ports of call.
Although the actual taxi fares might total $6 from and back to the ship, "Given the markups taken at every level … this may add as much as $18 to the price of an excursion," he said. "This increase will decrease the number of tours sold, as well as create the perception that the V.I. is too expensive."
He also said there are legal considerations, with agreements between The West Indian Co. and providers such as Atlantis Submarine.
"This problem has been festering for a long time, and it's never been addressed properly, and it's become a cauldron now," Van Rensselaer said. "We want to work it out and get as much on the table as possible."
He added, "There are two sides to the problem. The taxi drivers get up at 2 a.m. to queue up on the dock and wait for the ships. Then they see 800 to 1,000 passengers go off on the tour boats, and they feel we're taking their livelihood away. We don't know how many passengers that leaves for the taxis. We have to find that out."

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