Taxi rules under review in Salem | News
SALEM — Taxi and livery vehicle operators are asking city officials to make changes to the vehicles-for-hire landscape that would even things out for businesses running in the Witch City in the wake of cost increases to operate and competition from ride shares like Uber, Lyft and Salem Skipper.
The City Council’s ordinance committee voted unanimously Thursday night to support updating the base rate taxi operators are required to charge for rides, taking the fee from $5.50 to $7 for the first mile. No changes are proposed for additional fees covering distances longer than a mile (25 cents for each fifth of a mile beyond the first) and extra passengers (each passenger beyond two cost 50 cents per ride). The changes, which require two passages from the main City Council, could be in effect by mid-May.
At the same time, the body also voted to have city attorney Beth Rennard meet with the Salem police’s traffic division and representatives from companies in Salem to recommend further changes ahead of the coming tourist season. They must return with proposed changes by the end of May to stay ahead of the season, as per the wording of the vote.
“Nothing has been done since 2012 or 2013 to entertain any raise for the taxi fares, and things have changed a lot in the last 10 years,” said City Councilor-at-large Conrad Prosniewski, a retired 40-year veteran of the police department. “They’ve taken it upon themselves to try to fend for themselves out there, and that’s understandable — and also understandable that the Salem Police Department seems to have understood that and is lenient with the non-issuance of any violations.”
Those attending the meeting noted that the $5.50 rate for the first mile of a ride was set about a decade ago. Many companies have voluntarily been charging more than that, however, and police have been refraining from issuing fines, which would hit for $100 if the rules were enforced for unapproved rate increases.
“After some quick research this evening, calling around a couple different livery services, the going rate right now that they’re charging is $7 a mile,” said Ward 7 City Councilor Andy Varela.
“That’s correct,” confirmed Salem police traffic Officer Roberson Troncoso, who handles vehicle-for-hire licensing and inspections in the police department. “They’ve requested that we, or that the Council give them an increase in price. Unfortunately, before you, the Council, could approve it, they went ahead and increased the price of the fares.”
At the same time, however, many of the taxi companies are running cars as a livery service, so much that police recently flipped the number of taxi and livery licenses to match demand for slots. Prior to the change, there were 50 taxi licenses available and 35 slots for livery vehicles. The change was requested partly because livery vehicles establish a price up front and don’t run a meter, something many companies have found riders actually prefer, according to Salem police Lt. David Tucker, commander of the traffic unit.
“It’s very expensive to insure a taxi, and business dropped. The traditional taxi business has dropped off,” Tucker said. “They asked us last year if we could flip the numbers, so we did. We (now) grant 50 livery vehicles and 35 taxies.”
But currently, only eight taxi licenses are being actively used, further outlining the popularity of livery business, according to Tucker. Livery vehicles further differ from taxis because they tend to not be marked, can’t be hailed from a sidewalk, don’t run meters at all since the cost of the ride is established up front, and also cost much less to operate and insure.
Julio Mota, constituent services director at City Hall, sat with and interpreted the meeting for several taxi operators. At one point, he spoke on their behalf, frequently sharing the remarks of one specific owner seated to his left.
“Yearly insurance for a taxi is at about $12,500, and for livery, yearly insurance is $3,000,” Mota said.
When asked about metering versus fixed prices, Mota said the companies “all think generally that people do like the fixed price, that if they see a meter, they tend to not pay the price on the meter.”
“They tend to want to know what the price will be before they start the ride,” Mota continued. “They seem to be all in agreement. Generally, a fixed rate is favorable.”
Councilor-at-large Domingo Dominguez, whose campaign stickers appear on many taxi cabs in Salem, also called for action in support of taxi companies.
“They’ve actually tried to survive in a very competitive industry,” Dominguez said. “That’s why the conversation needs to happen — so we can have common ground on an essential service that we, as Officer Troncoso just mentioned, provide to our community.”
To that end, the vehicles-for-hire businesses also took a shot at the city for Salem Skipper, a $2-per-ride ride-share established by City Hall during the pandemic. The city website notes rides after 7 p.m. cost $3 each, while all rides for seniors, middle and high school students, and people with disabilities, are $1.
“They said they were told it operates from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, just within Salem,” said Mota, speaking for the company operators. “Currently, they go past that, later into the night, and they do leave Salem… and the prices they have, they can’t compete with that. Salem Skipper, they just want to know if something can be done about that.”
Mota later added that the taxi operators said they’ve been in Salem “for many years. He believes they should’ve been consulted on Salem Skipper.”
“We weren’t given the opportunity to pitch in on that topic,” Mota said, on the companies’ behalf. “We’re available in the future if there’s ever any topic that has to with transportation. They’re available to meet.”
Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.