Tour guide operators who previously used rental vehicles to show groups of visitors around say they're in crisis mode now that the Saint John traffic inspector has classified them as taxicabs and holds them to the same standards as that industry.
The problems started two weeks ago when Mike Boudreau, operating for ToursByLocals, was pulled over while he was driving a group of cruise ship passengers around in a rental vehicle.
He said he was fined almost $300 for not holding a Class 4 licence or the proper plates for a taxicab and his clients were escorted back to the cruise ship terminal in a police cruiser.
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"I explained to him, 'It's not a taxicab, it's a rental car,'" Boudreau said. "A Class 4 licence is only required if you're driving a taxi, a bus or an ambulance.
"I was driving neither one so I thought I was in my rights."
He called the experience embarrassing, especially when his clients were placed in the cruiser.
"I had to apologize to them. It didn't feel good. We lost a lot of clients," he said.
ToursByLocals not alone
Between the four ToursByLocals guides in Saint John, Boudreau said more than 100 tours have been cancelled.
The company now rents a bus or has clients drive a rented vehicle.
Freedom Tours, another tour company, said its business has also taken a hit.
Tour manager Heather MacKenzie said the problem is a lack of communication from the taxi inspector.
"We met him for the very first time last year," she said. "He said, 'Changes are coming,' and we said 'Fine.'
"We expect to follow the rules but the problem is no one has come to us with the rules."
'Why do it mid-season?'
She said the taxi inspector has contacted the district offices of the local vehicle rental agencies and told them renting to the tour operators is against the law.
"The car rental agencies are unable to rent to us and we had people stuck in Saint Andrews last week," said MacKenzie.
She said the tour companies feel sideswiped by the mid-season decision to enforce the regulations.
Freedom Tours now hires taxi drivers to transport its clients and places guides in the car alongside them, something the company says is only marginally profitable.
Bylaw is clear about tours in vehicles
According to the bylaw regulating the industry, a taxicab is defined as "a motor vehicle, other than a bus or trolley, during any period in which the vehicle is being used to transport a person for remuneration."
'Don't grind the police up for making things safe for the public.' - Sgt. Mike McCaig, taxi inspector
Taxi inspector Sgt. Mike McCaig says ignorance of the law is no excuse.
He also disputes claims from MacKenzie and Boudreau, who say not enough warning was given.
"At the end of the day, they were warned by the Saint John police last year they needed to obey these specific rules under the Motor Vehicle Act and the city bylaw," he said, adding he assumed they were given a second warning.
"Obviously, they've neglected to do that," he said. "As a result of that, here we are."
Protects passengers, McCaig says
McCaig said the bylaws are being enforced to protect the passengers.
Taxicab drivers are required to have criminal background and health checks, scrutiny the tour companies have never had to endure.
"It's a safety issue," McCaig said. "Don't grind the police up for making things safe for the public."
Freedom Tours said it has set up a meeting with the Saint John police and city council to discuss the possibility of changes.
Likewise, Boudreau said he plans to fight his recent fine in court.
"It's a black eye for the city of Saint John," he said.