Is local gridlock costing us?

The Keys are congested, and unlike the common cold, it is not going away. Undeniably, Keys’ residents and tourists are fed up with the seasonal influx of cars, the bumper-to-bumper traffic and high cost of taxis. Public sentiment is growing for a solution to the transportation infrastructure and crying out for ride-sharing services. According to a Key West city report by Mary Bishop called “Toward a Car free Key West,” traffic congestion is listed as the No. 1 complaint by residents, yet, counterproductively, 82 percent of tourists are arriving with a vehicle.

While being totally “car free” is admirable, it is not likely. The happy medium solution could lie in allowing popular Transportation Network Companies or TNCs — like Uber and Lyft — to step in and bear the burden of personal transportation. Ride sharing, now popular in all major U.S. cites, is the modern movement of green-ish transportation.

Around the country, TNCs’ rates are significantly lower than regular taxi rates. No one, including city leaders, wants to push out friends and neighbors who are professional taxi drivers. But the picture is becoming much more complicated. The sum of the parts is costing the whole. Some locals are driving themselves rather than paying taxi costs. And consumers of the $2 billion Keys tourist industry have expressed surprise at the lack of modern ride sharing.

Reticence for allowing TNCs within city limits is about regulations. If taxis have to be licensed and pay taxes, shouldn’t a TNC? And what about background checks for drivers, and vehicle inspections? How much should drivers be insured for, when personal auto insurance doesn’t cover a car for hire? Different TNC companies have different regulations. Should Keys municipalities create uniform restrictions? If so, the time is now.

STATE OF FLORIDA

The Florida legislature is about to make a statement on the legality of TNCs with upcoming bills SB340 and HB221. Come spring, state legislators could enact laws which will supersede any local ordinance or law and allow TNCs on the streets, subject to regulations written by the state, and not local municipalities. Without any grandfathered laws, Keys officials may not have a say about how TNCs operate within county or city limits.

While ride-sharing doesn’t seem to be a big issue for unincorporated Monroe County, it’s somewhat a concern in Marathon, and a big issue in Key West.

“There needs to be some leveling of the playing field,” said state Rep. Holly Raschein. “Everyone needs to come to the table. Taxis need to modernize and ride sharing companies need to compromise with the needs of the cities.”

MONROE COUNTY

Currently, the county has 322 taxi business licenses on the books — but this is more accurately a tax. The $22 fee is paid to the Monroe County Tax Collector.

There are no other rules on the books in Monroe County governing how taxis operate or background checks for drivers.

The Board of County Commissioners raised the issue at its December meeting. County Attorney Bob Shillinger said the county has the authority to limit taxi numbers, rates and fees in the unincorporated county. Other than directing staff to work with the Tax Collector on how to register ride-sharing drivers, the BOCC decided to hold off until the state weighs in.

KEY WEST

“Denying ride-sharing is not good for our economy, locals or tourists,” said Key West Commissioner Sam Kaufman. “Locals would have a cheaper way of accessing downtown without having to pay to park, and without a car they may use the circulator bus more around town. Also, we may not need to spend millions building not one but two parking garages in old town. And for the tourists, having to rent a car daily could affect if they pick the Keys for their vacation.”

Vehicle-for-hire taxi licenses have been limited, costly and hard earned by Key West taxi companies and drivers. Resident drivers have dominated commissioner meetings, expressing their heartfelt opposition to new, outside competition. City regulation on vehicle-for-hire licenses has always safeguarded the taxi profession but conversely has also allowed a monopoly on taxi costs.

“I have an issue with piece-mealing our transportation plan,” continued Kaufman. “Since when have we allowed Tallahassee to influence our decisions?” Kaufman’s concern is putting regulations for TNCs on the books now to help with the eventual introduction and regulation of ride sharing companies in Key West. From Stock Island to Key Largo, ride sharing is legal and largely unregulated. Maybe it’s time to stop the gridlock, from every angle.

Currently, there are 72 taxi’s, 10 vans, and 12 limos operating in Key West. Taxi companies reportedly pay per medallions traded in the private sector, $125 for each “unit” (vehicle) per year.

MARATHON

In 2013, before ride-sharing services were insanely popular, Marathon took pains to address its “passenger vehicles for hire” law. The council passed a law requiring taxi companies to register with the city, as well as register vehicles and drivers. The taxi companies must register and pay $300 for a two-year license (each additional vehicle and each additional driver is another $50), show proof of insurance and a valid driver’s license. There is no background check.

Currently, there are 13 companies registered to provide taxi service in Marathon and 53 registered vehicles. Mayor Dan Zieg said there is no current discussion about writing laws specific to ride-sharing.

“I don’t see us doing that,” Zieg said. “I don’t have an opinion one way or another. My sons who live up north use the service, and they love it.”

However, city staff is researching how other municipalities regulate taxi companies. As the law stands in Marathon, there is no mechanism for enforcement — i.e., code enforcement officers cannot pull over a taxi they suspect is operating illegally. Also, current Marathon law requires taxi drivers to have a business address, properly zoned, that would preclude most ride-sharing drivers.

ISLAMORADA

Currently, there is no ordinance addressing taxi or ride sharing services in Islamorada. Councilman Mike Forster said the village is waiting for Monroe County to implement rules and regulations.

“If it looks good, we’ll follow suit and adopt their regulations. As far as I know, we have one Uber driver in Islamorada, and only one taxi driver who came from Key Largo to complain,” said Forster. “Until it becomes an issue, it’s not an issue. It makes sense to wait to see what the commissioners and councils decide.”

— Sara Matthis and Gabriel Sanchez contributed to this report. 

 “If the state approved, as soon as the Governor signs the bill, Uber or other companies could be here the next day whether anybody likes it or not.” –Key West Commissioner Sam Kaufman

 “There is concern and talk about the taxi situation at the state level, but we just don’t know the end result yet. The state loves to pre-empt municipalities, so it’s always a struggle to provide more resources for the public.” – State Representative Holly Raschein 

“Until it becomes an issue, it’s not an issue. It makes sense to wait to see what the commissioners and councils decide.” – Village Commissioner Mike Forster.

Uber drivers:

Uber drivers must be 21 years or older, have a valid driver’s license, submit to a criminal background check, and have no history of major accidents or any DUIs. The vehicle must be a newer model car, inspected (Uber will provide its own inspection form and, in certain cities, Uber inspection sites). Drivers must have proof of personal car insurance, but Uber will provide the $1 million liability insurance. Uber drivers are personal contractors and are responsible for gas, tolls, maintenance and taxes of the vehicle.

Uber rides

Download the Uber app to your smartphone and register with a credit card. When you need an Uber, enter a destination and Uber will provide the nearest driver. You will see wait time, size of car (request small or large size) and price of trip. Also, you will see name, vehicle type and license plate of selected driver. GPS is used to track all cars, so a driver’s location is always known. No cash is necessary as the fee will automatically be charged to your credit card. Tipping is on a voluntary basis and not required. Drivers and riders can be rated to help weed out inappropriate conduct.

Uber fares:

Fares are calculated by adding a base fare (if applicable) + time and distance rates. Riders are also charged a booking fee ($1 or $2).

Example of city fares according to Uber.com:

Los Angeles – $0.15 per minute and $0.90 per mile

San Francisco – $0.22 per minute and $1.15 per mile

Chicago – $0.20 per minute and $0.90 per mile

Uber operates in the Florida Keys and 538 cities worldwide.

 

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