Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Amid crush of complaints, inspections and too few cabstands, Tampa taxi drivers persevere (w/video)

TAMPA — It has been a rough ride for the city's taxi drivers.

In recent weeks their cabs have been called pigsties and their professionalism has been questioned.

Then on Wednesday, after seeing a fellow cabbie get a $50 ticket for double-parking, taxi driver Murat Limage finally had enough.

As rain fell on downtown, Limage berated a cab inspector.

"The taxi driver don't have no voice in Tampa," he said. "The city just wants money."

It's not easy driving a taxi in Tampa. But it got harder after Lou Plasencia's recent rant.

The prominent hotel developer was addressing Hillsborough County's hotel executives last month when he ripped the cabs he used at Tampa International Airport.

The drivers are unprofessional, he said, their cabs filthy. They demand cash to avoid paying credit card fees. They dress poorly and don't know where they're going.

So the Tampa Bay Times set out to examine the industry, sifting through customer complaints, shadowing a cab inspector and talking to drivers.

• • •

Plasencia said the cabs he rode from TIA were in "deplorable" condition.

That complaint baffled the inspectors of the Public Transportation Commission, which regulates Hillsborough's for-hire vehicles. That's because the taxis stationed at the airport are the most inspected cabs in town.

PTC inspector Wayne New, a former Hillsborough County sheriff's sergeant, said he has pulled a few filthy cabs out of service. But most drivers don't let their cars get to that point.

"It's a customer-oriented business," he said. "If you treat the (customers) good, if you talk to them good, if your vehicle is clean, you're more likely to get a better tip."

Plasencia also complained that some cabbies refuse to take credit cards; demanding cash instead. The PTC said that is a valid complaint and it's cracking down. Agency rules state that cabs equipped to take credit cards cannot refuse them.

The cab commission said the biggest problem is cabbies who won't accept short fares. For example, the maximum fare is $9 to take three people from Ybor City to downtown. County rules forbid drivers from turning down short rides.

But the PTC isn't sure that Tampa's cabbies, who are used to taking people from Ybor City to South Tampa, are the problem. Inspectors believe that the real issue may be that unlicensed cabs are rejecting short rides and cheap fares. That includes ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber, which are resisting the county's cab rules.

• • •

The PTC regulates more than cabs. The agency oversees 2,022 ambulances, cabs, limos and tow trucks in Hillsborough County and the 3,265 drivers licensed to operate them.

But inspectors spend a lot of their time dealing with the county's 663 cabs.

The PTC issued 238 correction cards to cabs going back to October. Those cards go to cabs that have safety or cosmetic issues.

The agency doesn't break its enforcement numbers down into categories, so it can't say how many cab drivers or cabs were actually cited. But in the past 10 months, the PTC issued 179 citations for serious infractions that resulted in fines.

Most went to cab and limo drivers for things like violating traffic laws, overcharging or driving without a cab permit or taxi driver license.

The Times also reviewed customer complaints made to the PTC. Many were fare disputes, or allegations of overcharging. But the customers weren't always right.

• In February 2013, a woman complained a cabbie already had the meter running when he picked up her husband, who uses a wheelchair. But the PTC determined the customers kept the driver waiting, so he had the right to start charging them.

• In March 2013, a California woman complained that a cabbie who picked her up at TIA was rude, drove recklessly and talked on his cellphone during a quick drive to a car rental company. The driver was irate about the $15 fare, she said, and sped off when she asked for a receipt. The PTC cited the driver, and his company sent him to defensive driving school.

Just two drivers lost their licenses in the past year.

In April, a cabbie who blocked traffic and defied sheriff's deputies while waiting for fares at a cruise ship terminal was ordered off the property. But she came back, looking for fares.

She got three citations that day, and was suspended 30 days.

On Thursday, the PTC revoked the license of a taxi driver who tested positive for marijuana.

• • •

The Times rode along with New, the PTC inspector, as he made the rounds one morning last week.

First stop: the cabstand by Tampa's Marriott Waterside, where New found a taxi double-parked in the roadway. He wrote the driver a $50 citation.

This cabstand has been a constant headache for the PTC. Cabbies tend to double-park on the street, blocking traffic while they socialize with fellow drivers.

But to taxi drivers, the crowded cabstand is evidence of how they're mistreated.

The cabstand serves anyone who needs a taxi outside of the Marriott, Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa Convention Center and Embassy Suites Tampa. Yet it has just seven parking spots for hundreds of cabs.

Michael Moses, who owns three cab companies, said his industry is an afterthought in Tampa. Transportation issues may be on everyone's mind, but Moses said his industry has trouble just setting up meetings.

"They have all these city planners with initials after their names," Moses said, "but there's never enough planning into staging areas for taxis, limos and buses."

There are just five cabstands in downtown Tampa, and one of them is only open part-time. While the PTC keeps issuing permits for new cabs, driver Limage said, the city isn't making more room for new cabs.

"They make it harder every day for the taxis," the cabbie said.

Most drivers lease their cab permits and the cabs themselves from companies. They declined to speak on the record to the Times for fear of getting into trouble. But Limage, who has driven a cab since 2004, had no problem speaking out.

Cab drivers prefer to take cash, Limage said, because cab companies can charge them up to 5 percent for credit card transactions.

"It's not required for the customer to give you a tip," he said. "But if the customer gives you one, the (companies take) 5 percent."

Inspector New's next stop was Tampa International. Dozens of taxis waited in a staging area off Boy Scout Boulevard to be sent to the main terminal.

As soon as New stopped, a few drivers start cleaning their cabs. The inspector examined three dozen cabs in about 30 minutes. He issued one warning, for thin tread on a cab's rear tire.

The drivers allowed to wait for customers at the airport seemed more relaxed. That may be because they have access to better fares. The minimum cab fare at TIA is $15. Even here, though, taxi drivers don't want to talk on the record or be identified.

But driver Carlos Giraldo let the Times inspect his minivan. The cab was immaculate. There was even a cooler in the back filled with cold bottles of water.

The better he treats his customers, Giraldo said, the better they'll treat him.

"I mean, I'm doing well," he said. "I'm my own boss. I'm an independent contractor. I make the money I need. And I don't get into trouble with any boss."

Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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