Governor Orders BMV To Halt Ban on Inter-island Rental Car Use

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Car rental companies are hoping for an increase in the quota of rental vehicles allowed on St. John as dictated by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Controversy erupted last week after Bureau of Motor Vehicles Director Jerris Browne issued an update reminding rental car companies of a 45-year-old law forbidding inter-island travel of rental vehicles.

“This communication will serve to update all Car Rental Agencies that based on the Virgin Islands Code Title 20: Section 422 (h) and (i) drive yourself vehicles cannot be transferred, transported or used on an island for which they are not registered.”

Basically the order stated that vehicles rented on St. Thomas cannot be taken to St. John and vice versa. The order also outlined stiff penalties for taking a St. Thomas rental vehicle on the barge to St. John.

“Any person who violates the provisions of this section shall be subject to a fine of not less than $1,000 for each vehicle transported, or revocation of their business license for a period of not less than six months.”

The announcement was sent out by BMV on Tuesday, April 17, and ignited a controversy on several online social media sites pitting villa rental companies and tourists against car rental companies.

The mandate related to a 45-year-old bill which is likely not legal today and prompted Government House to swift action.

The day after the order was issued, on Wednesday, April 18, Governor John deJongh directed Browne to “immediately rescind the previously issued order regarding the transporting of rental cars from St. Thomas to St. John,” according to a prepared statement from Government House.

Rescinding the order will allow the Attorney General’s Office time to examine the existing law and federal law to determine if there is a conflict with a Commerce Clause, explained Government House spokesperson Jean Greaux.

“This is an old law that was passed 45 years ago,” said Greaux. “Since St. Thomas and St. John are one district, even though they are separated by several miles of water, this could be a violation of intra-state commerce.”
Instead of enforcing the edict issued by BMV last week, deJongh urged bureau officials to meet with St. John car rental agencies, Greaux added.

“Additionally, the governor’s directive calls on the Director of the Motor Vehicle Bureau to make an assessment of each St. John car rental agency and determine whether there is a need to adjust the car rental company’s fleet quotas,” he said.

BMV dictates to all St. John car rental agencies  how many vehicles they are allowed to own and rent. That quota is 635 vehicles in total for all of the agencies combined. The problem, according to car rental agency owners, is that the quota has not changed in 20 years.

“With the quota system, we have not been able to increase how many cars we have in the last 20 years,” said St. John Car Rental owner Lonnie Willis. “They have prevented us from increasing our cars because of the quota and that is the problem.”

Rental car agencies on St. John claim that many tourists rent their cars on St. Thomas and stock up on groceries there before taking the barge over to St. John. That means less people taking taxis, less people riding the passenger ferry, less people shopping in St. John grocery stores and less people renting from St. John car rental agencies.

Villa company owners and many repeat tourists to St. John chimed in on several online social media sites, that St. John car rental agencies are often booked, leaving tourists with no alternative but renting on St. Thomas.

“What are my clients supposed to do if all the rental cars are taken on St. John,” said Karen Baranowski, owner of Windspree Vacation Rental Homes, which  rents villas in the Coral Bay area. “If I have someone staying out at Salt Pond, they can’t take taxis out there. They have to rent a vehicle on St. Thomas if there are none available on St. John.”

“Or they just won’t come,” said Baranowski.

Despite repeatedly requesting an increase in the St. John rental car quota, rental agencies are told “there are too many cars on St. John,” said Willis.

Many of those cars counted as a reason to keep the St. John 20-year-old rental car cap, however, are from St. Thomas, Willis explained.

“St. John Car Rental has asked for that quota to be increased each year and we’ve been told that the quota can’t be increased because there are too many cars on St. John,” she said. “They can’t give us the excuse that there are too many cars on St. John when many of those cars are from St. Thomas; that’s unfair.”

Willis has seen as many as 60 rental cars from St. Thomas unload off the barge in Cruz Bay, she added.

“People have estimated that between 400 and 600 cars each week come over from St. Thomas,” said the St. John Car Rental owner. “I’ve seen 60 rental cars from St. Thomas come off the barge myself.”

St. John Car Rental is only allowed to have 55 cars no matter the demand. Despite promises from BMV officials year after year, nothing is done, Willis explained.

“We’ve met with the [BMV] director for the last three or four years and he’s told us that he would reallocate more cars each time,” she said. “He did not do that.”

Willis hoped this latest controversy would finally spell action for increasing the St. John car rental quota, she explained.

“Between the quotas and allowing all these cars to come over from St. Thomas, we’ve been stymied for years,” said Willis. “We’ve been unable to expand our business in 20 years. We’re really handcuffed here.”

“We need to remove that quota or increase it,” she said.