The Fenwick Island Town Council voted unanimously this week to request proposals from potential municipal shuttle service operators for the 2014 summer season, acting on a recommendation from the town’s parking committee.
The idea, according to Ropewalk restaurant co-owner and parking committee member Mark McFaul, originated with the concept of shuttles carrying patrons to and from the town’s restaurants.
“The question was, if we have all these shuttles — someone brought up, ‘What about the Town doing it?’ It relieves parking, and it provides a service,” he said at the Jan. 24 council meeting, noting that it could also reduce incidents of drinking and driving, since those indulging at Fenwick’s restaurants would no longer need to drive home to other places in town after their dinner with drinks.
McFaul said the restaurant owners — at least two of whom have been operating some kind of valet or shuttle service for their patrons — had discovered that they could have a shuttle service operating along Fenwick’s roadways if they used highway-approved vehicles, which led to expanding the concept.
“What about the Town organizing it?” he recalled from the discussion. “It’s just a service and would make for a little less parking need, a little more safety, a little less driving and drinking. It couldn’t hurt.”
“We had an idea of ‘Why don’t we just start one together?’” he explained, versus having four or five different services running separately to and from multiple businesses.
Councilman Gardner Bunting asked him if there had been any discussion of the businesses all going in together on a single service.
“We were all open to different ideas, but this is kind of what it came down to,” McFaul explained of the notion of a Town-approved service, saying the idea had been that the service would at least pay for itself and possibly make some money.
McFaul had previously expressed concerns about any Town-run shuttle service potentially pushing out the valet service provided at Ropewalk, but as Town Manager Merritt Burke explained to the council on Jan. 24, there’s nothing stopping anyone from offering such a service in the town now.
And that poses an additional concern for the council.
“The key is to cut down on having three or four running around town,” said Mayor Audrey Serio. “If you do it, someone else will want to do it. … If we had an outside vendor, that would take the responsibility off everybody.”
Council rejects idea
of fixed-route service
Burke noted that the State designates such services as either fixed-route or non-fixed-route.
A fixed-route service, he said, is something like the Jolly Trolley, which operates as an advertising-supported business in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, or Bethany Beach’s municipal shuttle, which is operated by the Town.
A fixed-route service stops at designated locations, on a schedule. It requires no contract with riders and can carry 10 or more passengers. The drivers must have a commercial license. The vehicles used can be a regular motor vehicle or a low-speed vehicle, such as a golf cart or tram, so long as it’s legal to drive on the roads in question.
A non-fixed-route service is, essentially, a limousine or taxi service. For a limo service, no commercial driver’s license is required, but they’re limited to 15 or fewer passengers. And, according to Burke, they’re supposed to sign contracts with riders when they’re picked up — at least technically.
“I’ve never signed a contract with limo service,” Serio noted of her past experiences.
Burke said DelDOT officials acknowledged they have hard time monitoring violations of the requirement.
“What’s to stop people from calling the restaurant and saying, ‘I have six people who want to come eat dinner — can you come pick us up?’” Serio asked.
“They can, and they are right now,” Burke replied.
In fact, in addition to the restaurant valet services being offered at Ropewalk and Nantucket’s, the Black Pearl shuttle already operates in the area. It is essentially a free service but asks for donations to keep it running and accepts tips.
“I don’t know anybody that would sign a contract to ride in this,” Councilwoman Diane Tingle said of a proposed shuttle service.
“What’s the difference between a taxi and limo service?” Bunting asked. “You don’t have to sign for that,” he said of the taxis. Burke said they were classified separately under state law, and Police Chief William Boyden offered an explanation as to why there is so little regulatory oversight.
“Most large municipalities have a taxi commission,” he said, including Ocean City, Md. Limousines are generally unmarked, he noted, with no rates posted and no meter in the vehicle, and they will instead present passengers with a form that shows the rate being charged.
In contrast, he said, taxi commissions were created to deal with so-called “gypsy” cab drivers “ripping people off. Taxis have to have their rates posted,” he said of the regulations required by taxi commissions. But Delaware doesn’t have many taxi commissions, except perhaps in New Castle County, he said, where there are enough taxis that they will conduct enforcement actions, including spot inspections.
Burke said it would be up to the shuttle company to follow the state code, and part of what the Town would provide would be facilitating paperwork requirements and keeping those credentials on file.
A non-fixed route service in the town — which is what he said the discussions thus far had described — would technically be a limousine service, he noted, and would require contracts be signed with passengers when they are picked up. A contractor would also have to have the required credentials — a requirement the Town couldn’t waive, since the state motor vehicle code supersedes town ordinances.
The Town would also have to decide if it wanted to require a business license, which is not currently a requirement for taxi and limo services operating inside its borders.
Council members appeared in agreement that a fixed-route service was not something they wanted to consider.
Bunting explained that his concept for the Town-partnered service was to “one company, with one phone number people would call. It would pick them up, transport them, and then you’d call and they would take you back home. They’d pick you and all your gear up and take you to the beach.
“I don’t think our intention was ever for a fixed route,” he said, with Councilman Gene Langan adding that he didn’t think demand was sufficient for that concept to even work in Fenwick.
“It would be more convenient for everybody if there was one phone number to call,” Bunting said of the idea of a non-fixed-route service. “However, they could not drive to that point,” he noted of a proposed base station at town hall, “and leave their car and be transported. It would reduce a little bit of vehicular traffic, especially in the evenings.”
And, he said, it would help address safety concerns. “People are having drinks with dinner, and they might prefer not to be driving, so that would give them an opportunity to have a designated driver, so to speak.”
Burke noted that DelDOT requires such services to be ADA-compliant, have the appropriate licenses and be properly insured. “It’s not as easy as one would think,” he said of establishing a shuttle service.
Bids could vary widely
That, and some other variables, left the council wondering what kind of proposals they might end up with and what requirements they should spell out in their request for proposals.
“We don’t really know what we’re going to get until we bid it out,” Burke said, adding that he didn’t know whether a limo service would pay for the kind of semi-exclusivity or Town endorsement they would be offering if such companies can operate their service without it now.
Council members also wondered what type of vehicle the proposals might suggest would be used. A low-speed vehicle, such as a golf cart, can’t travel down the highway and thus wouldn’t be able to cross some of the town’s streets. Burke said he didn’t expect anyone to bid on the contract with the Town who would also propose to use a low-speed vehicle.
“It’s allowed, but does it make the most sense? It does not,” he said, adding that he expects the contractor will come in and meet the existing limousine code requirements. “My job is to make sure they understand the code and provide the Town documentation. We’ll put it in a file and make sure it’s updated, and that’s as far as we’ll go,” he said.
Councilman Roy Williams said he liked the low-speed vehicle being used by Nantucket’s. “I like what Nantucket’s does. I think it’s cool. You see this little shuttle go in and out and pick people up. Then you get into something like the Black Pearl,” which is a converted former mini-school bus, “shooting around through town.”
“They can already do that,” Burke said, “and if we were to go to bid with a company, they could continue to do that. And Nantucket’s could do what they’re doing, too.”
Councilman Todd Smallwood said the restrictions on the low-speed vehicles is “a shame. I like Nantucket’s shuttle. But they can’t make a right on Route 1.”
McFaul, noted, however, that similar vehicles that are slightly larger can be licensed to operate on all roads, leaving open the possibility of something less like a van or school bus and more like a tram.
Benefits for Town
But Smallwood questioned whether the Town should even be getting into the shuttle business.
“Why get involved at all? We’re not going fixed-route. This is already permissible. Then why should the Town get involved at all?”
Burke said that was the question being put to the council.
“Does the Town want to sponsor or be involved in a limo service? And that would be the trump card,” he said for an approved contractor — that the Town would essentially be endorsing that company, even though other businesses could still operate a service in the town. “Or does the Town not want to participate? Other businesses outside town are already performing a limo service, whether for a donation or not.
“The parking committee has recommended you discuss and take action on an RFP. I like the idea of a service and I would like it bid. Our involvement would be coordination, organization,” he added, calling it very similar to the Town taking a bid for beach services on the state-line beach, which it controls, even though it is outside town limits. “We would do all the internal coordination, for a fee that they would pay for the year.”
“The Town would not pay any money?” Tingle asked.
“That is the goal, yes,” Burke replied.
Williams asked if the Town was obliged to accept a bid if they didn’t like any of the ones that came in, and Tingle and Burke both confirmed they didn’t have to award a contract if they didn’t want to.
“I don’t see the harm in that,” Smallwood said of issuing the RFP. “But I can’t see it as a stable business model.”
Burke asked the council members what their position was on advertising as a revenue source for the service and what type of financial arrangement the Town might want: 50/50, 80/20, taking no cut of advertising revenues at all?
“How much money would we get for a contract?” Tingle asked.
Burke said he expected the service could make $10,000 per season on advertising revenues alone, with the cost of fares likely running around 50 cents to $1 one way.
“That’s potentially a lot of money,” he said. “If you were to bid it out, and the company gives you $1,000 and makes $15,000, is that good enough?”
“Why don’t they come to us and say, ‘We’ll do this…’?” Serio suggested.
“Don’t even put it in the RFP?” Burke asked in return.
“Let’s don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be,” Serio replied.
“We’re never going to know until we proceed,” Councilman Bill Weistling said of the outcome of the bidding process.
“I think it’s sorely needed,” Serio added. “We’re behind the 8-ball by not having something to offer the people here in town. We know we have parking problems. We know if you go out to someplace at 8 o’clock, you could be riding around for two hours to find someplace to park. I think this is going in the right direction, and you don’t know until you try it.”
“If it keeps them off the streets and keeps them from being frustrated… We have enough parking problems,” Bunting said. “It’s worth looking at.”
The rest of the council agreed, voting 7-0 to approve issuing the RFP.
The request for proposals will seek a contractor for a municipal shuttle service to be operated on a seasonal basis, from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., with the service exclusive to town limits and immediately adjacent areas, running from the town’s northern boundaries to Route 54.