Death and Taxis

Minority cab companies doing business with the airport may face extinction

Harry Haggard, owner of Allen Cab and St. Louis Auto Livery, says he'd never pony up so much money to the airport. "I don't see the business there," Haggard says. "And I'm really surprised that they're even considering something like this. It sounds like they're trying to squeeze some of the little guys out of business."

If the airport contracts with a single company, Haggard says, "that would create a big, big problem as far as possible conflict of interest, especially if it was one of the cab owners/commissioners."

Slay argues that a single contractor will enable the airport to "operate with more strict terms." Lambert, he says, would be able to exercise more control in requiring newer vehicles, prohibiting taxis from refusing short trips and instituting a better system for helping passengers recover lost items.

St. Louis has a history of segregating immigrant-run cab companies from their American-owned brethren. Prior to 2000, when a small, Ethiopian-owned company brought a racial-discrimination lawsuit against St. Louis County (which at the time regulated airport taxis), airport taxi licenses were limited to 129 cars belonging to 7 white-owned companies.

The court ordered the county to deregulate, whereupon nine new companies -- many of them immigrant-owned -- secured licenses, and the number of cabs servicing the airport doubled. Increased competition led to a bribery scandal in which three people (two men who enforced taxi-line rules and one cab owner) pleaded guilty to related charges in early 2002.

In 2003 the Missouri legislature enacted a statute establishing the city-based Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) but leaving intact the two-tiered system of airport and on-call taxis.

Ziub concedes the current system of eight firms needs fine-tuning. "The management we provided the airport was not as it should be," he says. "It was poor."

After learning of the airport's plan, Ziub and the other seven airport cab companies formed the Coalition for Taxicab Drivers and appointed Ziub to run it. He says the coalition hopes to streamline billing and improve relations with Lambert. "We created a framework for what the airport wanted," he says.

"They say a tree does not make a forest," muses Oluwole Asubiojo, an Ethiopian-born airport cabbie. "When you come together, you are stronger."

Still, complains Gateway Express owner Abera Shiferaw, "It's impossible for us to win. There's no way we can beat out big companies, companies with huge capital and political connections."

For the drivers, the stakes are high. "I send one [child] to college this year," says Amanuel Ghiwot, smiling. "He's a 3.6 student. So I only spend close to $1,000 extra payment. The rest was scholarships."

Without the job, many worry they'd have to leave St. Louis.

K.J. Singh came to St. Louis two years ago from India. Last year he gave up his job as a gas-station attendant to drive a cab. Singh was a marketing manager for a large chemical company before leaving India with his family for "dreams of America."

Says Singh: "You may call them 'illusions' if we have to leave this."

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