St. Louis Airport Won't Release Ride-Sharing Data as Taxi Revenues Fall

May 9, 2018 at 6:32 am
Since St. Louis began to allow Lyft and Uber to pick up passengers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport last August, the number of passengers using taxis have dropped sharply.

The $3 "trip fee" that cabbies must pay the airport each time they pick up a passenger dropped from a high of $118,044 in May 2017 to $53,391 in December, according to airport records released in response to a Sunshine request. That suggests a 54 percent decrease in the number of trips handled by taxis — and, coming at a time when overall airport business has been increasing, it suggests many St. Louis passengers are opting for ride-sharing over traditional cabs.

But it's impossible to say for sure, for one simple reason: Even though the city also forged an agreement with the ridesharing services to collect $3 per pickup — as well as $3 per dropoff, a fee not paid by taxi drivers — the airport refuses to release records pertaining to that data.

In a letter responding to our Sunshine request, Associate City Counselor Nancy E. Emmel explained that the city would provide only data on taxi fees, not those paid by "transportation network companies" such as Uber and Lyft.

"Enclosed please find information requested from taxis," Emmel wrote. "We are not providing information for transportation network companies ('TNCs') because TNC revenue data, including pick-up and drop-off data, is confidential information not subject to disclosure under the TNC permits with the city and are treated as trade secrets [under Missouri law]."

David Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center Missouri, says that's ridiculous. "Documents showing the amount of taxes and/or fees paid to a government entity are not a 'trade secret,'" he tells us. "The issue may be that the form in which the rideshare companies submit information to the airport includes content that could reasonably be considered a 'trade secret.' But even if that's the case, the Sunshine Law requires the public governmental body to provide you the record, but with any close-able information redacted." Indeed, the record listing taxi receipts contains only a total for each month — there's not a thing a startup cab company, for example, could learn about any individual competitor by surveying it.

Chuck Billings, an attorney for the Metropolitan Taxi Commission, which regulates cabs in greater St. Louis, including at the airport, said he couldn't imagine what "trade secret" the ride-sharing companies feared revealing. "We all know that's made up," he scoffed.

Taxi cab companies collectively pay $45,264 each month to operate at the airport on top of the trip fees. In 2017 alone, they paid $1.75 million in airport fees, a number that includes both monthly permit fees and fees for each trip.

During the first two months of 2017, however, taxis were on pace to contribute far less — likely more like $1.39 million if current trends continue throughout the year. That's even though Jeff Lea, a spokesman for the airport, says that passenger activity is up 4.2 percent in the first quarter.

Says Billings, "Since the TNCs have been allowed to operate at the airport, the taxi business is down, period. That's the way it is."

In response to an email from the Riverfront Times, Uber declined to voluntarily provide its remittances to the airport. Lyft simply didn't respond.

Lea says taxpayers need not fear that the ride-sharing companies aren't paying their fair share. The airport, he says, gets its data from a "geo-fence" program that tracks Uber and Lyft drivers as they enter and leave the airport. They just won't share the results with the rest of us.

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