If a proposed Salt Lake City ordinance passes, those who rely on taxi service will see a brave new world in ground transportation emerge: a safe, convenient ride available after a night of boozing or a day of air travel. Cab fleets will be clean and “green,” with a required number that are handicap-accessible. They’ll be decked out with GPS tracking and follow established airport and evening schedules. To achieve this goal, however, the ordinance requires that a Request For Proposal be issued for all three of Salt Lake City’s certified taxicab companies—Ute, City Cab and Yellow Cab—to respond to. At the end of the day, however, only two would emerge with contracts to stay in business.
The city has been working on this issue for more than five years. One sticking point for cab professionals—like James Curtis, a dispatcher for Ute Cab Co.—is the proposal to place all vehicles under the authority of the Salt Lake City International Airport—a plan he believes came out of city officials’ exhaustion with trying to address the taxi-service issue.
“The airport can make rules and impose them as they wish,” Curtis says, speaking of the proposed ordinance. “The council and mayor have just thrown their hands up in the air and said, ‘Let’s get rid of this as soon as we can.’”
While the council plans to discuss the 210-page ordinance in early September, most city officials would not describe the process as rushed. After years of study and debate, city planners think the ordinance will do much more for the traveling public, and at lower cost to the city and with fewer taxis. By using a contract system that employs only two cab companies, the city will likely reduce the numbers of taxis from 268 to 200, which would put cab totals at pre-2002 Olympics levels. This will provide more hours and fares for the remaining drivers.
The number 200 came from Ray Mundy, a consultant from the Tennessee Transportation &Logistics Foundation, hired by the city to examine Salt Lake City’s taxi industry. Mundy concluded from numerous interviews that drivers felt there were simply too many drivers for the available work. He reported, “Many drivers admitted to working 14 to 16 hour days in order to pay their lease or stand fees and take home $70 or more.”
Dispatchers like Curtis disagree with Mundy’s findings, however. They argue that cutting back the fleet is going to give city residents a headache on weekends, especially when big events are going on. “I’ve dispatched for the past 15 to 16 years, and there have been times all cabs we have now are absolutely pushed to the limits,” Curtis says, giving weekend shopping, as well as events such as conventions and concerts, as examples.
The ordinance does more than take cabs off the street—it aims to increase service for residents by better distributing cabs throughout the service area. “At any one time, we have 50 taxis that we know of, just sitting [at the airport], waiting two, three or four hours for a fare,” says Salt Lake City Council Chair J.T. Martin. “We have enough taxis, we just don’t have them in the right place.” The proposed ordinance would require the two contracted companies take turns working at the airport on alternating days—that way, city residents would always have a full company at their disposal.
“Let’s be frank,” says Dave Korzep, operations director for the Salt Lake City International Airport. “The airport is the plum. [Taxis] know they’re going to get a fare. But the city council wants to create a better, safer service for those folks on the bar crawl late at night and those that just want to take a cab to and from the house. The ordinance is about enhancing better service downtown on those off hours.”
The ordinance would also change the way enforcement is handled, removing current criminal penalties for things such as driver conduct and the appearance of cabs. Instead, those enforcement mechanisms will be handled through civil fines and penalties that are included in the contract agreements. “You hope you don’t have to administer fines,” says Korzep, “but that is the hammer in this kind of thing.”
Since both companies would still be servicing the airport, Korzep says the existing airport staff would conduct regular inspection of cabs and other ground transportation vehicles to ensure they are in compliance with their contracts.
Handing the hammer of enforcement to airport personnel is a major concern for Ute Cab’s Curtis. While the airport will still have to defer to the city council and mayor’s office if they wanted to change the rules of the proposed ordinance, the airport would have sole discretion over rate increases. Curtis writes in an e-mail that this change is “contrary to the democratic process with checks and balances and public opinion that our governments are supposed to follow.
“[This is] a bureaucrat’s dream come true—their own dictatorship hidden within the protections of a democracy,” Curtis writes.
City officials say if there is a tradeoff in giving the airport the authority over cab rates, it gives cab companies more flexibility if they need to raise rates: The full public process, involving hearings and work sessions, often takes months to complete, compared to cab companies simply being able to petition the airport quickly and directly.
Cost is bound to be the biggest factor of the debate. While the proposed ordinance will be discussed at the City Council’s Sept. 7 meeting, the Request For Proposal itself has not yet been drafted. Korzep says there is a possibility that the RFP would include a concession fee that taxis will have to pay, based on the number of airline passengers who disembark in Salt Lake City. Add this potential fee to the cost of new required spot-check inspections of every two months as well as any new costs involved in yet-to-be determined GPS, green standards and ADA compliant vehicles, and Curtis predicts cab companies will have to raise rates. Either that, or cabs will cater to high-rolling hotel fares while forsaking nightclub and senior-citizen fares.
“That fee being paid pretty much forces the driver to look for more lucrative-type business,” Curtis says.
While some may have doubts, Council Chair Martin at least sees a proposal that, if navigated carefully, can bring Salt Lake City’s bumpy, years-long ground transportation ordinance safely home. “This is going to be life-changing for these taxi companies,” Martin says. “So it’s got to work if we do it.”
Eric S. Peterson: