Twelve miles and a ferry ride from the New England shore, Block Island is one of the last major tourist destinations in the United States without Uber or Lyft — and islanders want it to stay that way.
Come summer, the sleepy island welcomes thousands of vacationers, many of whom depend on taxis to get to its bluffs, lighthouses, beaches and weathered-gray shingle homes. Now, as at least one ride-hailing company proposes to deregulate the community’s strict 88-year-old taxi code, longtime drivers are fighting to protect a way of life that helps them make ends meet in a place where the median home costs $1.2 million.
“This is our livelihood,” said taxi driver Champlin Starr, a retired oil tanker captain whose family first landed here in the 1660s. “People come to Block Island because they want an experience. They’re not going to get it with someone who doesn’t know where the landmarks are. This is our home.”
With 32 licensed taxis, each with up to four drivers, Starr said, nearly 10 percent of the island’s roughly 1,000 year-round residents spend part of the summer driving fares around. The school’s principal is a taxi proprietor. So is the retired police chief.
But some residents say they could use some competition, especially to attract younger tourists accustomed to the convenience of using apps.
“My guests are always complaining about how expensive the taxis are, how fast their drivers are driving,” said Emma Rose Tripler, a lifelong resident who manages two inns. “They’re cranky, on top of it. And some of them are pretty aggressive.”
The town of New Shoreham, which encompasses the island, has been setting its own taxi rates since 1929. Its rules include a surcharge for dirt roads and a requirement that someone vouch for a driver’s moral character. The average wait to get a taxi license is 15 years.
“I’m a retiree and a widow,” said Fran Migliaccio, owner of Mig’s Rig Taxi. “It’s my sole source of income.” Migliaccio said that she’s not proposing to ban Uber and Lyft, but that their drivers should be “subject to the same level of scrutiny” as everyone else on the taxi waitlist.
Rhode Island enacted a statewide law last year to formally legalize and regulate Uber and Lyft, but Block Island residents are now pushing for an exemption.
“What Uber and Lyft are going to do is come out for two months, skim all the cream off the top and leave,” said state Rep. Blake Filippi, a Block Island Republican who proposed the exemption, to which both San Francisco companies object.
So far, the debate is just theoretical. Uber and Lyft don’t appear to be operating there yet.
On a recent April weekday — only two taxis operate in the off-season before Memorial Day — Vin McAloon, the 77-year-old retired police chief, was unusually busy as the weather began to warm.
At the ferry station, he picked up house painters and a sales team visiting the town hospital. At the tiny airport, he picked up a resident returning from a dentist appointment on the mainland. When fares called for a ride, McAloon usually knew them by name.
Ride-hailing apps are now allowed in tourist destinations throughout the country, most recently Wyoming, where they were legalized in March, and upstate New York, where they’ll be available after July Fourth to riders in Niagara Falls and other popular spots. The exceptions are Alaska, where legislation is pending, and Austin, Texas, after a dispute last year. When they’re not available elsewhere, it’s usually because of a lack of drivers or customer demand.
The costly ferry ride across Block Island Sound has been the island’s strongest defense against an Uber onslaught.
Ferry distance hasn’t stopped other island resorts, such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts, from grudgingly accepting Uber and Lyft. But remote Block Island, once known as a pirate hideout, has always had an independent streak.
The town’s taxi drivers made an expedition to Rhode Island’s State House this month to testify in favor of the exemption, leaving a day before the hearing because of wind that could have shut down the ferry. The exemption’s sole voice of opposition was Sami Naim, a public policy manager for Lyft, who said it was “an opportunity for us to work together to help deregulate” the island’s onerous taxi regulations.
In a sign that the state is likely to side with Block Island taxi operators, lawmakers scoffed at his comments.
“They’re saying, `Leave us alone,’ but you’re being very persistent,” state Rep. Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat, told Naim. “Sometimes you have to know when to fold it and run away.”