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Our Town with William Kelly: Rideshare proposal stalls, for now

A rideshare company’s proposal to operate a fleet of all-electric cars in Palm Beach got off to a bumpy start at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting.

Council members voiced concerns about “commercialization” after hearing that the Long Island-based Rove rideshare service earns its revenue by selling advertising space on its vehicles.

“There’s a sensitivity here to mobile billboards,” Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay told Rove co-owner Gianpaolo de Felice. “We are a residential town. We’re not really commercial.”

Mayor Danielle Moore said Rove’s business concept is creative. “I’m not sure our residents are going to get it. But it’s interesting.”

Lindsay said she wouldn’t want the advertisements to be too large or to include graphics. Councilwoman Julie Araskog objected to a picture of a Rove vehicle bearing an ad for a high-end brand of tequila.

“I don’t think that’s something we should be advertising in our town,” Araskog said.

Rove is an app-based business similar to Lyft and Uber but free of charge. It is based in Montauk, East Hampton and Sag Harbor, but wants to expand into Palm Beach and Aspen.

De Felice and co-owner Jack Brinkley Cook propose to set up a fleet of 10 black Tesla Model 3 vehicles and hire drivers who would operate them from the northern tip of the island southward to the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach in the South End.

The service would be exclusively for Palm Beach residents and might operate from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week, he said. The seasonal operation would be from Dec. 1 until April 1, starting this year, de Felice said.

Rove does not charge its drivers and is not seeking a financial contribution from the town, he said. It generates revenue by wrapping its cars in advertising from local businesses.

Council President Margaret Zeidman said Palm Beach is different than the Hamptons in that it is smaller, less commercial, and “more insular.”

But she said Rove would be providing a service to residents, who in years past could call the police department for a ride home if they didn’t want to drive after drinking alcohol.

De Felice and Brinkley, who was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting, were invited to make a presentation to council after meeting with Councilman Lew Crampton, chairman of the council’s Business and Administration Committee. The two-member committee, which includes Lindsay, developed a seven-point plan to ease parking congestion on the island.

Crampton said Rove’s rideshare service would be a welcome part of that plan. Last season, the council was flooded with complaints about parking and traffic congestion.

“Parking was right in our face, as the major issue,” Crampton said. “Now, I hear my colleagues talking about something conceptual called ‘commercialization’. We’ve got to solve a real problem, which is the parking issue. This program will take cars off the road and take cars out of parking spaces. It will do it in a Tesla, which is non-polluting.”

But council members raised other concerns. Lindsay wanted to know how to enforce a residents-only restriction for use of the rideshare. Suppose a Rove vehicle takes a town resident to the airport. Would non-residents be able to get a ride on the trip back into Palm Beach?

“How do we know you are not picking people up in West Palm Beach?” she asked de Felice.

He replied that the service could be set up so that the drivers don’t leave the island.

Councilman Ted Cooney said he’s concerned about unintended consequences.

“Will folks take the rideshare to the beaches in residential neighborhoods where there is no parking?” he asked. “If a North End resident is going to go for a $300 lunch, they don’t need a free ride.”

Younger residents already use Uber frequently when out on the town during the weekends, Cooney said.

For security, Rove would screen its drivers before hiring them, de Felice said. But Araskog noted that there are different levels of background checks. “For our town, it would need to be the highest level,” she said. “Our chief of police or [town manager] could be involved in that.”

Rove would be the second free-of-charge rideshare service to operate in the town. West Palm Beach-based Circuit, which uses electric shuttles, already ventures onto the island. A staff report on Circuit’s performance comes before the council next month.

Crampton urged the panel to reach a decision soon so Rove could be ready to roll on Dec. 1. But no one made a motion to vote.

Although it didn’t receive a green light on Tuesday, Rove isn’t out of gas, either. The council decided to delay a vote on the operation until its October or November meeting.

“It could be a good thing,” Zeidman said to de Felice. “You’ve given us a lot to mull over.”

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