Cab Fair

A new taxi commission sets up shop but is already mired in Lambert Field mud

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Oiled by decades of cronyism and routed by St. Louis's shifting, patchy economic terrain, St. Louis's city, county and airport taxi systems all veered in different directions. There were meter-fraud scandals and bribery scandals, cabs' outnumbering customers and unlicensed "gypsy" cabs stealing what little business was left.

As business travel and tourism dropped in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the muck grew stickier, especially at Lambert Field.

Now, armed with a state statute that went into effect August 28, the mayor and county executive have appointed a regional taxicab commission to pull the taxis out of their rut. The old system split responsibilities for three separate taxi systems among reluctant city, county and airport officials. The new commission will regulate, in a single breath, the entire industry -- and its members have six months to fix problems that have plagued St. Louis for decades.

The new statute gives the airport managerial authority over airport taxi operations, so suddenly the airport is creating solutions for all the old problems. Brian Kinsey, airport business and marketing manager, says Lambert Field officials plan to contract with a taxi-management company, charge trip fees to each taxi and administrative fees to each company and impose zone fares.

They also intend to move unlicensed cabs to an area where they can be supervised; demand clean, shiny new vehicles and uniforms and English fluency; and replace the ceiling on the number of airport drivers.

"This is one of those things the airport hasn't been allowed to get its hands on," says Kinsey. "We are anxiously looking forward to it."

Tom McCarthy, former state senator and chair of the new commission, says the airport can relax; the commission will set all standards. As for a ceiling on the number of cab companies allowed to operate at Lambert, he says: "Everyone will be grandfathered initially, and then a lot of this will solve itself. I'm sure some drivers are better, and they will bubble to the top, and the ones that aren't will winnow away to another industry. People retire; the Lord takes some."

Cynical by habit and bitter because they can't make a living, local taxicab drivers don't share McCarthy's faith.

They say the industry doesn't follow the normal laws of supply and demand, doesn't weed out excess drivers and doesn't reform unless it's forced to do so. They're already questioning the commission's competence -- and its objectivity. McCarthy, they note, is an attorney whose experience with the cab industry comes from representing the owners of cab companies -- including former St. Louis Mayor Alfonso Cervantes when he owned Laclede Cab Company -- and helping them bust a drivers' union.

McCarthy says all drivers will have the chance to give input at two public hearings, once the commission gets a new draft of a taxi code approved. He created the draft himself, meshing existing city and county ordinances.

"We're not going to try to revolutionize the industry because, frankly, we don't know how," McCarthy says. He admits that this method has its drawbacks: "It's like trying to put together two ordinances, one regulating horses and the other regulating cows. They're both four-legged, but...."

They're different animals. And the existing ordinances never worked in the first place.

Cooperation's been so rare that at one point, inbound passengers had to pry themselves out of county taxis and sling their parcels into city taxis at the Skinker boundary. Officials made silly rules -- such as forcing airport cabs to deadhead back to the airport every trip instead of picking up a return fare.

Every day at Lambert Field, a line of airport taxis inches from a staging area known as "the back 40" to "the wall" along the east terminal, then on to the main terminal. Drivers slouch in their taxis for hours on end, hungry and cranky. One pees into a bottle because a trip to the Johnny on the Spot might lose him a fare. Another revs the sixth engine in the 1982 Chevy he can't afford to replace.

Nobody ever intended it to be this way.

Airport-taxi responsibilities have been shared by the county and the airport and neglected by both. The county issued a $1,000-a-year license to each taxi but lacked any enforcement authority at the airport. The airport authority has controlled the taxis' working conditions and charges drivers $1 a day to do business -- not enough incentive to improve the system.

Until 1998, the county divvied airport privileges among seven company owners, licensing 129 cabs. Then a company owned by Ethiopian-Americans sued to join the airport club. Lawyers for the county presented nationwide studies showing that deregulation inevitably led to a surplus of taxis and, hence, rude drivers, congestion, less profit, higher fares and older, dirtier, more dangerous vehicles.

Chip Siegel, the attorney who pressed the suit, says his clients weren't asking for deregulation; they just wanted the county to crack open the clubhouse door and make a few licenses available to outsiders. To everyone's shock, the little company won its suit and won again on appeal. St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Godfrey pronounced the club of seven "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable" and ordered the county to issue six more licenses.

Terrified of future lawsuits, the county ignored its own studies and removed the ceiling altogether.

In two years, the number of airport drivers shot from 129 to 288, just as fear of terrorism and a weak economy thinned out the customers. Company president Erv Eltinge, whose Skyway cabs have been licensed out at the airport for 40 years, says his drivers used to be able to clear $3,200 a month -- now they're lucky to clear $600.

The public is also taking a pocketbook hit. Fares have increased by roughly 35 percent, and it now costs $32, not $24, to taxi downtown from the airport. All has unfolded exactly as the county officials predicted in court -- even though they later convinced themselves it wouldn't.

"I underestimated how many folks would continue to stream in," says Garry Earls, director of public works for St. Louis County. "I just assumed that everybody would make a rational choice." Later he realized that for a new immigrant, entering the fray at the airport for subsistence wages was a rational choice.

The county tried repeatedly to interest the airport in taking over, but with no promise of power or profit, airport officials dragged their feet. Drivers, meanwhile, begged the airport to hang signs steering them to the official cabstand and warning travelers about solicitations from unlicensed cabbies.

Nothing changed.

"There's probably not been a lot of enforcement," concedes Kinsey. "Now there will be financial incentive for us to do a good job."

Financial incentives haven't played out so well in the past, though. It's not been so long since former state Senator J.B. "Jet" Banks bought an airport-limousine service, lied to a grand jury about its purchase price, wangled exclusive contracts and left owing the city money. In the county, John Hill, a favorite of St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, ran the taxicab office single-handedly for nearly four decades -- until bribes replaced rules, leading to criminal convictions for Hill, another county worker, a cab-company owner and County Councilman Robert A. Young IV.

"We don't want any of that unpleasantness," says McCarthy, promising tough enforcement of rules and standards, along with fines and tows for gypsy cabs. Drivers welcome the prospect but wonder where the money will come from to pay for it. They also worry that half of the eight commissioners are not only independent of the taxi industry but clueless about its workings.

One commission member does represent drivers, but it's not Kelly Henley, the favorite of legislators who set up the new body.

"She's kind of a lightning rod," says Earls. "She creates a great deal of enmity in a political process that requires a great deal of cooperation."

Instead of Henley, the county appointed Solomon Tadesse, a charming Ethiopian fellow who's been fired from several taxi companies but gets along well with county officials -- and has influence over potential plaintiffs.

"Solomon Tadesse was part of the original lawsuit," says Earls. "I think that shows we are holding no grudges."

Grudges aren't McCarthy's concern: "We have to get a code first, deal with the critter everybody's familiar with."

That would be the four-legged horse-cow that never did run right.

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