War on Taxis

Handi Van Inc., a wheelchair van service, is collateral damage in Salt Lake City’s  “War on Taxis”.  The essence of the taxi reform is to “deregulate, privatize, and demonize”,  such a  political winner for so long in America.  Except it did not work out so well lately for the stock market, banking, real estate mortgages, and even taxi service in other cities.

This approach was deliberately perfected by Ronald Reagan who announced his campaign for the presidency by giving a state’s rights speech in the town near the earthen damn where the dead bodies of the students who helped with voter registration of blacks were found. With that theme in that little town, Reagan sent a powerful call for support from those who hated or feared the progress of civil rights in those days. Young people today might not realize that the Southern states claimed jurisdiction over bringing murderers of blacks to justice–or not–under state’s rights. It was the federal government that brought some killers to trial for “violation of the civil rights” of the people they killed when the local authorities failed to act. And Reagan turned away from the history of the Republican Party being from the 1940’s the first party to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Reagan lead the National Convention that nominated him against the Equal Rights Amendment, taking it from the party platform. Such a winning formula in America for so long: Deregulate and Privatize make the rich and powerful more so, and of course they reward the politicians and government regulators well.   Meanwhile enough of the rest of us were and are distracted by fear or hate over race, women, gays, Muslim terrorists to allow the destruction of our economy and rights.

Cab drivers out in the cold

(link to full story “Cab Drivers out in the Cold” in Salt Lake Tribune)

Anyone who doubts taxi drivers have somehow been de-humanized in Salt Lake City should ponder the two filthy unisex outhouses they are relegated to at the airport. It is illegal for them to leave their vehicles and run in to the public bathrooms. That would trigger the car bomb drama and get themselves and their companies in trouble. They would loose the badge that allows them to drive taxi in the City. Urinating in public is also a disqualifying offense for a badge. So they have to choose: it is nasty outhouse, leaving the airport loosing their place in line to pull up to the curb to  hopefully get a good fare, or what?

There was a small break building with bathrooms with running water to wash hands, a board to monitor flights, a couple rooms to get warm, eat lunch, say a prayer. Mostly taxi drivers used it, but occasionally a wheelchair van meeting a specific person would stop to watch the board and wait for a call instead of circling the airport. Oops, some Muslims were saying prayers which enraged at least one Christian taxi driver  complaining about Muslims.  And a fight broke out. The airport’s solution was to lock all of them out–innocent, guilty, men, women, every race and religion–to outhouses on a back road.  As a permanent solution. They even tore the bathroom building down!  In the City trying to bridge the religious divides this has not only gone on, but a woman taxi driver held up pictures and told the City Council in one of those 2 minute comment periods that she was one of 3 women and over 80 men who daily shared the 2 unmarked, filthy outhouses.   She told the City Council the taxis did not want the reform to put the people at the airport who were responsible for that kind of problem solving in charge of the City’s whole taxi system. She was not heeded.  That is exactly what the City has done.

Salt Lake City’s old taxi law has been replaced (deregulated) with a “reform” to put the taxi work out to bid for contracts (privatized) with no guarantee or even preference that the existing providers will even be allowed to continue working  (demonized–how else could you do that to hard working drivers the City’s own badge system has proven to be legally here and law-abiding? And owners who under the old system had a property right to their certificates?)

“Deregulate, Privatize, Demonize” was the rage 10 years ago when the City hired the expert, but as noted above it worked out so well with the stock market, banking,  real estate.  When I was a kid the joke was that it took until the seventies for the sixties to get to Utah.   Now we are 10 years late getting with a trend that about bankrupted the country.  And on top of all that, Utah has an infamous history with contracting.  We are  destroying a system in which the existing companies had a property right to continue with their Authorities indefinitely as long as they followed the rules–and they did.  If the system was properly managed by the City, taxi companies could get financing based on their Authorities, and they could sell when they wanted to retire.  Now the Ground Transportation Manager at the airport is going to be handling contracting for 3 or 4 short term contracts to operate taxi companies in Salt Lake City, as well as inspecting all ground transportation vehicles.  Who has not realized the magnificent opportunities for bribery? And the potential for bias–are some of the private contracts going to be better than others?   Will inspection standards vary if they are part of a negotiated contract?

It was not long ago that the City thought Southwest  Ambulance was a good idea.  We forgot about “buy Local” and  brought in an Arizona company promising 14 ambulances.  When the financial situation got rough, they packed up and went home.  The City is lucky Gold Cross survived. An established local company is much more likely to fight to survive here than an outsider who hasn’t actually provided service here.

At the same time that Salt Lake City is spending taxpayer money to take the trolley back to the future, we are going to an  already dated approach to taxis that has proved to have some serious downsides.  Salt Lake is destroying the taxi Certificate of Convenience and Necessity  system that has never been subsidized and might be harder to get back than re-buying trolley right-of-way.  Ten years ago dispossessed drivers and business owners might have been able to move on to other careers without suffering personal disasters but we have a recession going on. Some owners are close to retirement age but the 10 years of reform talk, and now the reform makes their businesses worthless to sell.  And it has been a serious detriment to wheelchair van service as well, as we are being pulled along as an after-thought.

After 10 years of listening to arguments, paying an expert thousands, allowing input in 2 minute sound bites–the City Council passed the already dated reform in what still feels like a depression, creating major looming upheavals for taxis–and wheelchair vans, shuttles, and limos too. Because new limitations on years and miles for taxis which are typically passenger sedans, got extended to other forms of private passenger transportation in Salt Lake City. Taxis and shuttles and wheelchair vans.  Six years and 350,000 miles are the limits for every vehicle.  Wheelchair vans had a possible exemption from the years on a case by case basis “if no other problems.”  But  we saw how many “other problems” one of our wheelchair vans developed in a matter of days. (see Breaking News)  After 10 years–why now?  And no grace period for miles.  For years, 75% of fleet must be updated in a year, 100% in two.

The expert’s report did point out that if there are too many vehicles in business for the market to allow any of them to make a fair return, the providers become financially stressed.  He knew where his bread was buttered, and did not tell the City the first step was to eliminate the unfair competition of illegal providers as the City even in good times loudly announced in advance it could not afford enforcement.  He does acknowledge there are gypsies.   I do not think he scolded the City for licensing any number of shuttles and other entities that directly competed for the same market as taxis.  (Another enforcement problem somewhat fixed by changing the definitions of shuttles in a “compromise” in which the taxis lost.  You don’t have to enforce rules if you change them.  That  fits with the Deregulation trend.) But he did say the taxis would be more prosperous if there were fewer units.  He was recommending reducing the number from 268 to an even 200.  But when it finally, after all these years, got to the City talking about passing the reform soon  the drivers showed up at the City Council begging not to be kicked out of their cabs in this economy,  and the City Council relented.  But when the only reason for abandoning an entire system went out the window–reducing the number of taxis so those who remain can make enough to maintain quality taxi service–the City Council still  passed the reform and made it immediately effective.

One of Handi Van Inc.’s vans, a big wheelchair van built on a Dodge truck chassis meant to go longer and farther than a passenger car, got caught up by a point of potential abuse in the City inspection system, which was retained  in place under the reform. Two inspections of the same van just days before and after the reform passed reach impossibly different conclusions about cosmetics on a van 19,000 miles over the new mileage limit.  What was different was the active presence of the airport ground transportation manager who asked for a flashlight in broad daylight  The wheelchair van would have been eligible for a waiver if  “no other problems” but it got buried in cosmetic issues that did not occur in a matter of days–paint oxidation?– by the guy who decides appeals.   A one inch tear in the vinyl 0n the back door behind the back bench seat in a wheelchair van?  We are admittedly not looking at a new van.  But the guy we have had to appeal to is the same guy who drove the inspection in the first place.  It is the difference between whether it should be allowed to work 0r not.  It is about buying a new $40,000 vehicle on no notice or  grace period. Will we ever get anything through inspection if we complain? Are we out of business anyway over other issues with the City?

The narrow story of this van is described in the “breaking news” page of this site affects Handi Van Inc. seriously.  A broader result of this one van’s saga is written proof that discriminatory enforcement is certainly possible.  It raises the question of what a well placed bribe might do.    Efforts to deal with this situation have forced us to think seriously about the whole reform, and start speaking out. The taxi owners are all too afraid of not getting a contract to say what they think–and they have not seen any sign of being heard in ten years.

Will the contracts be a matter of public record?

Almost every form of transportation is government subsidized, but not taxis and other private passenger services as limos, shuttles, and wheelchair vans. Think UTA with its federal grants and state sales tax as well as fares. Railroads, airlines, and even trucking were majorly subsidized with free land to the railroads, airports built for the airlines, and the post WWII federal freeway system building boom gave trucking its advantage over the railroads. It is hard to find a harder working, lower paid small business than taxi. Maybe wheelchair van. We pay taxes, and pay fees to the City for every driver badge, vehicle inspection, and trip through the airport as recorded by the windshield computer chip which lifts the gate at the commercial lane.

If only because of the airport Salt Lake City owns, the City cannot completely deregulate as there are federal rules expecting the airport to have both taxi and wheelchair van service to accommodate the traveling public, and Homeland Security issues. All ground transportation drivers, as the non-air local commercial passenger transportation in and out of the airport is called, must meet the Homeland Security rules. The new taxi law continues the background checks and badging of drivers, and inspection of vehicles, and verification of the required insurance (1.5 million per the feds). Even though the taxi reform calls for taxis to be deregulated and contracted to the City, the City in conjunction with Homeland Security does a rigorous background check before issuing a badge to any ground transportation driver, so there are no illegals or criminals.  Companies operating under the old Certificates of Convenience and Necessity were scrutinized by the City.  Vehicles are inspected by the City to a higher standard than the familiar safety inspection.

But taxi drivers get no respect from the City.  Under the law–city, federal, and Homeland Security because the City owns the airport– they cannot leave their vehicles unattended at the airport without setting off the car bomb alerts and getting themselves and their companies in trouble.  So they cannot step inside and use the public bathrooms at the airport.

Under the old law, Certificates of Convenience and Necessity were issued, and as long as the taxi companies followed all the laws and rules, their authority was permanent.  They could use it to finance vehicles, and they could sell the business and retire.    Taxis we punish into being shiny and new.  We are making them subsidize some of the disabled and the hotels  by providing wheelchair transportation at taxi rates.    The city backed off reducing the number of cabs allowed, putting over 60 cabbies out of work in a recession.  But the cab companies themselves are going to have to bid for short term contracts with the city  and are warned that the contracts may not go to them.  No one wants o

copyright 2011 Lee Anne Walker

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