TAMPA — The taxi cabs here might not be the newest, swankiest ones on Earth. But are they really the "deplorable, embarrassing" pigsties that one critic alleges?
Hotel developer Lou Plasencia blasted the city's taxi industry during a recent meeting of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association. Tampa cabs, which also go to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, give visitors a bad impression of the area, he complained.
To see for ourselves, a Tampa Bay Times reporter rode in seven taxis from six different companies earlier this week. Some observations:
• Though all six companies are licensed by Hillsborough County, their cabs varied widely in cleanliness and English proficiency of the drivers. The Times found the best were Yellow Cab and United Cab, the only ones allowed to pick up passengers in the taxi line at Tampa International Airport.
• All of the drivers were neatly, if casually, dressed. None had on shorts, which Plasencia has seen on other Tampa drivers and found unprofessional even in the city's sweltering weather.
• All of the drivers handed out blank receipts. That's good for business travelers hoping to cover the cost of an extra martini, not so good for suspicious accountants back at the office.
The survey began at Tampa International in a United Cab. It was very clean, with a heavy scent of air freshener or carpet shampoo.
Destination: the Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa. Fare to all downtown sites: $25.
"Tip optional," the driver added.
From the Marriott, the plan was to hop a cab to the Aloft, a new hotel a short distance away. A Marriott valet motioned for the next taxi in line, from Addis Car Service.
Inside was hotter than outside. Dirty carpet peeked from under a torn vinyl floor protector.
"The Loft, where that?" the female driver demanded.
Unencumbered by directions, she stepped on the gas. The reporter bailed out, fearing an aimless, expensive journey around town.
Next up: an A-1 taxi. The carpet in this was soiled, too.
"Got cash?'' were the driver's first words after taking a swig of bottled water and wiping his mouth with his forearm.
As Plasencia complained to the hotel association, some licensed taxis don't take credit cards. Fortunately this was a short trip that cost a flat $6. Or $5 by the meter. Or $3 per person if there were more than two, as the driver tried to explain in uncertain English.
Aloft's valet, Frank Bonilla, had his own taxi story .
Seems that his friend Felix caught a cab in December at TIA. He gave the address to Bonilla's place on River View Avenue in Tampa, about six miles and 10 minutes from the airport.
Some 30 miles and 40 minutes later, Felix called from Riverview in southern Hillsborough.
"The driver had the city, the street, the zip code,'' Bonilla said. "All he understood was 'Riverview.' ''
Bonilla talked the driver to the correct destination and negotiated the fare from $100 to $40.
"There was no GPS. If you have foreign drivers why not a GPS?'' Bonilla wondered. "I was dumbfounded by that.''
From the Aloft, it was back to TIA in a clean Americab van. The driver asked whether the A/C was cold enough and even opened the door for his passenger, the only driver to do so.
The survey resumed the next day at the airport, with a fine United Cab ride to the Grand Hyatt at Rocky Point.
Valets said the most frequent complaint about taxis is that there aren't enough of them, especially during big events. Even on a dead midsummer day, it took 10 minutes for a Yellow Cab to arrive.
It smelled freshly cleaned and had far more notices plastered to its left passenger window than any other. In addition to required zone and rate maps, there were Yellow Cab numbers to call for "comments and complaints.''
The final ride was from the Tampa Hilton back to the airport in an Affordable cab. It had gone several blocks when the passenger finally thought to ask whether credit cards were accepted.
No,'' the driver said, prompting a frantic search through wallet crevices for $25 cash.
This taxi failed to have its cab number displayed on the back of a front-seat headrest, required so passengers can refer to the number if making a complaint. Al Asaqas, Affordable's manager, said rowdy passengers sometimes peel off the numeric stickers.
Curiously, the drivers for Affordable and A-1 presented blank receipts from United Cab. An A-1 dispatcher explained that its drivers are self-employed and have to provide their own receipts.
Rather than go to that expense, he said, some "borrow'' receipts from United drivers.
"A receipt is a receipt,'' the A-1 driver shrugged.
Addis didn't return calls seeking comment about its dirty cab. Inspectors from the transportation commission walk Tampa's taxi lines daily, checking for trash, ripped seats and torn headliners.
They also check the accuracy of meters — most complaints involve disputes over charges, inspector Anthony Italiano says.
At least once a year all cabs are thoroughly inspected for safety and mechanical issues as well as general appearance. Drivers, too, are required to undergo certain checks and have special licenses to pick up passengers at TIA.
Passengers shouldn't expect them to speak like Oxford dons.
"They're only required to speak English proficiently enough to carry on a transaction,'' Italiano said. "But at least they should have enough knowledge to make change along with a knowledge of local geography so they don't take you on a wild trip some place.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.