Rules force change in cab companies

Taxis, hotels move toward agreement over van controversy

Posted: Friday, January 07, 2000

Two local cab companies have combined dispatching operations to cut down on overhead.

An agreement also appears imminent between independent taxi drivers and hotel managers about how hotel courtesy vans should operate.

But there is still considerable tension about new regulations and fees that went into effect for commercial passenger vehicles last year, with taxi company owners complaining the city is gouging them.

The Juneau Assembly appears likely to revisit some of the issues in February. But assembly member Tom Garrett said that after tweaking the ordinance a bit, he wants to let it work for the summer tourism season before making any major changes.

Alaska Taxi & Tours and Juneau Taxicab Co. have merged their dispatching operations at an Airport Boulevard location, largely in reaction to problems associated with city regulation, said Alaska Taxi owner Gary Allen and Juneau Taxicab co-owner James Harris.

Between the two companies, it is costing $12,500 in city fees to stay licensed and get vehicle inspections for the coming year, Harris said. ``That's cash in advance that they want. . . . We're all getting killed.''

Allen contends 64 percent of the revenue being generated by the new fees - including separate fees paid by the drivers, who are independent contractors - comes from the taxi industry. He said other for-hire transportation - vans and shuttles operated by hotels and cruise ship lines, among others - are paying less and are under less scrutiny.

The outcome is unfortunate, since the taxi industry asked for closer city supervision of for-hire transportation, he said. ``It backfired on us so completely.''

``Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it,'' Garrett said.

Union official Greg O'Claray, representing the Juneau Independent Drivers Association, said an agreement is close on defining the role of hotel courtesy vans: Taxi drivers won't object to the vans making scheduled stops in general areas, so long as the vans aren't ``at the beck and call'' of individual hotel lodgers who want to go to Costco or a doctor's appointment.

Garrett said he expects the assembly to take up that ordinance amendment in late February.

But Allen still sees other operators encroaching on taxi business, such as shuttles that get flagged down.

``For about two years, I was getting out'' of the business, Allen said. ``Now I'm jumping back in with both feet . . . because we're getting blindly ripped off.''

Particularly galling, Allen said, are hundreds of dollars in late fees for each taxi or driver added after the mid-winter certification period. ``I'm supposed to have ESP for the year. People come and go; it's the nature of the business.''

But the assembly made it clear that the taxi industry's suggestion to hire a compliance officer wouldn't be cheap, Garrett said.

The total cost associated with the new position is about $60,000 annually, he said. The new administrator of commercial passenger vehicles, Officer Josh Shrader, started with the police department Nov. 15.

If taxis pay more in city fees, they also get more leeway in doing business, Garrett said. ``The taxis enjoy a unique protection that no one else enjoys. Everybody else is restricted in their movement in some way.''

O'Claray said he will know next week whether the independent drivers will seek a rollback in fees this winter. But he said he is appealing a late fee imposed on a driver who wasn't able to take a physical exam during the certification period because he fell off a roof during the holidays. ``It's unreal to charge an injured person.''

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