City must enforce rules that already exist, ensure safe transportation
by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: SARAH TOOR, A Radio Cab taxi passes through an intersection in Northeast Portland. A taxi owner and member of Radio Cab’s board of directors  writes that town car drivers are not following city rules, and are hurting the cab companies.

Try to imagine a major urban mass transit system without taxicabs. Cabs are indeed the one indispensable part of the private for-hire transportation system. The wealthy business elite who supposedly create the demand for town cars might deem it beneath their station to use a common taxi, but they would nonetheless get to their destination safely.

If the destruction of our cab industry by rogue town car operators continues, elderly and less affluent citizens who depend on cabs will be affected, along with the tourists who visit here and strengthen our economy (A fare fight - taxicabs cry foul, Apr. 16). These rogue operators only target the lucrative, easy and safe fares. Cabs depend on those fares to offset the less profitable, difficult and more dangerous trips they are required to take.

Taxis carry a heavy regulatory burden, and rightly so for the sake of public safety and convenience. They provide wheelchair accessibility, serve all parts of the city 24 hours a day and maintain a substantial fleet size to assure reliable service - all at standard rates set by the city. Radio Cab fields about 180 vehicles to service the metropolitan area, employing some 500 drivers.

Town cars have none of these requirements and as a result have much smaller overhead. This is especially true of the town car 'companies' whose 'fleets' consist of one car. Their office is a cell phone, and their marketing plan is to discreetly slip $15 to the valet for each airport trip. With a fleet size of one, they have few options other than to illegally prey upon the business of cabs and that of the legitimate town car companies that operate by the book.

Every town car company entered into business in Portland with the understanding that its services were to be by reservation only. Regulations also require town cars to charge substantially more than taxis, in order to separate each business into its own service niche. There is widespread disregard for these regulations out on the streets and scant support for enforcement at the city level, despite valiant efforts by Frank Dufay and his small staff.

Exacerbating the problem is an agreement between the hotels and parking enforcement that essentially hands over publicly owned street parking to the hotel valets. The hotel owners are conveniently shielded from direct responsibility for the abuse of this arrangement because most of the valets are private contractors. Mayor Sam Adams needs to explain to us why his office has denied requests from his own city officials to reverse this egregious covenant. Until this happens, the valets will continue to park town cars in the loading zones all day long, making them readily available to illegally provide on demand service and kick back 'tips' to the valets for the privilege.

There is an unwritten compact between the city and the cab industry that asks taxis to provide services essential to our transit system. And, for its part, the city guarantees they will not be undermined by unfair competition. The city of Portland has not lived up to its part of the bargain.

It is long past time to level the regulatory playing field and put some genuine commitment into enforcement.

Begin by letting parking enforcement do its job at the hotels. Continue on with a balanced regulatory approach that provides for public safety and compels rogue operators to assume the responsibilities, and costs, of a legitimate business. A requirement for a minimum town car fleet size of five cars, along with a bona fide office, should be part of the regulations. It would be a mere fraction of the current requirements for cab companies, but it's a start.

Bob Wagner is serving a two-year term on the Radio Cab Co. board of directors. He owns four shifts at Radio Cab and was the driver representative on the city's Private For Hire Board of Review for two years. He lives in North Portland.

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