Transport quarrel in St Elizabeth

…But Black River Mayor Derrick Sangster offers hope

Editor at Large
South Central Bureau

Monday, July 23, 2018

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — For more than 50 years, a small, privately owned shopping plaza on Coke Drive in Santa Cruz has been the parking area for taxis which travel southerly, through Northampton to Myersville, and Leeds to Malvern.

Everything changed two weeks ago when police enforced rules requiring the transport operators to park in the officially designated Number One Transport Centre, about 50 metres further east. That centre also accommodates taxis and mini buses travelling easterly routes as far as Mandeville and Kingston.

Now, the newly displaced taxi operators are crying foul. They say the Number One Transport Centre is too congested to be a viable and sustainable parking option for them and that prospective passengers, especially the elderly and shoppers with “heavy load”, are struggling to walk the additional distance from the town centre. They also point to inadequate lighting and security which make the transport centre inoperable at night.

Currently, all operators at the Number One Transport Centre take to the streets after dark — with the unspoken approval of local authorities — because of fears about possible criminal activity, which, the new arrivals say, was not a problem at their former base.

The St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation has overall responsibility for transport centres and yesterday, chairman of the corporation and Mayor of Black River Derrick Sangster, in a phone conversation with the Jamaica Observer, made clear that the concerns of the taxi drivers are being considered.

While emphasising that the eviction of the taxi men from the plaza at Coke Drive was part of an effort to bring “order” to Santa Cruz, Sangster said “options” were being considered which would make the cabbies and their passengers more comfortable.

Sangster said the corporation's chief engineer would be assessing facilities at the Number One Transport Centre with a view to renovation which would provide more space and other facilities such as improved lighting.

Also, he said, the owners of the plaza on Coke Drive had approached the municipal corporation with “an offer of an arrangement” which could allow the taxi drivers to return.

While Sangster did not specify the nature of the proposed “arrangement”, Charles Powell, head of the Southern Taxi Association which represents the disaffected taxi drivers told the Observer late Saturday that the owners of the plaza were offering a kind of “partnership” which would allow parking fees to be shared with the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation.

Sangster confirmed that an informal meeting had been held with Powell and others recently and that a more formal meeting will take place. The mayor said the planned meeting will happen after the chief engineer had completed his assessments.

He emphasized that any decision would not compromise the drive to bring order to Santa Cruz, which is notorious for chaotic traffic and informal sidewalk vending.

Sangster said “business people” on Coke Drive had been complaining for a long time about disorder caused by legal and illegal transport operators who are accused of often showing little regard for others.

“Whatever we do there will have to be order,” Sangster said yesterday.

When the Observer visited the transport centre last Thursday, taxi operators alleged that the police were not thwarting illegal, 'robot taxi' operators who they said were making a killing picking up passengers who would otherwise have had to come to the transport centre to board legal taxis with assigned, red licence plates.

Persistent efforts to get a comment from the police failed on the weekend.

“It's unfair,” complained taxi driver Colinton Dennis whose licence allows him to work the Santa Cruz to Malvern route.

“We the legal, red-plate drivers are losing revenue because we can't go in the town and pick up even one passenger because police will give us ticket, while the robot men (with white licence plate) free. Right now I feel like I should just go and run robot,” Dennis said.

Other taxi drivers, including Fitzroy Banton and Alphonso Peart, agreed.

Peart felt “red plate” taxis should be allowed to pick up passengers on their designated routes “as long as you not obstructing traffic” even if it's within the town limits. Otherwise, he said, illegal operators would continue to have an unfair advantage while dodging the law.

Peart recalled that in November 2015 there was nearly a riot in Santa Cruz when police attempted to remove the taxi operators from Coke Drive to the designated parking area. Back then, a teenage girl was injured in a confrontation with the police, several police officers were hit with stones and other missiles, and a police car was damaged by stone throwers.

At that time, then chairman of the St Elizabeth Parish Council (as it was then known) Everton Fisher met with taxi operators and the police and the removal was put on hold, pending the execution of plans for improving the situation at the designated transportation centre. Those improvements, Peart argued, never happened.

Powell told the Observer he and others in the Southern Taxi Association were anxious to prevent any incident, even remotely resembling that of three years ago. However, he said, “the members (taxi drivers) are very upset”.

The taxi drivers aren't the only ones upset. When the Observer visited last Thursday, passengers complained of the congestion at the designated transport centre and what they described as the long walk to get to get there.

“Round here too combustible, nowhere to rest our feet, nowhere to sit… and is too much hassling to walk and carry mi goods,” complained Stacey Grady as she boarded a taxi to travel to Warminster in the Myersville area.

And at the vacated plaza on Coke Drive, wide open parking spaces greeted the Observer team. Business operators complained that customers had disappeared since the eviction of the taxi operators.

“Business not good,” a worried bartender, Theresa Blackwood, told the Observer.

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