Saturday, November 18, 2017
Business

Hotel executive calls out Tampa's 'deplorable, embarrassing' taxicabs

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TAMPA — Hotel developer Lou Plasencia flies all over the nation from Tampa International Airport. When he steps into a taxi, that's one of his first impressions of the city he's visiting.

"When I hail a cab in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago," he said "it's a positive experience."

Then there are the taxis at his hometown airport.

"It is the most deplorable, embarrassing experience," Plasencia said, "to have a guest sit in that pigsty."

Plasencia, a well-known executive in the bay area lodging industry, went off on the state of Tampa's taxicabs during a panel discussion at Thursday's meeting of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association.

Taxicabs have been a problem for years, Plasencia told an audience of the top hotel and hospitality executives in the Tampa-Hillsborough market.

Those cabs also ferry visitors across the bridges to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, making it a concern for the whole bay area.

Plasencia is the CEO of Independent Hotel Partners, a Tampa firm that develops hotels and resorts across the country. He didn't hold back on the effect an unprofessional driver and filthy taxi can have on visitors:

"Dirty cabs, drivers in shorts, they don't know where they're going. That's inexcusable. That's the first line of contact."

Plasencia asked executives in the audience to imagine their own hotel employees treating guests the same way as the taxi drivers he complained about:

"What if your desk concierges were sitting in their polos and jeans and they took 20 minutes to answer a guest and they said, 'Sorry, we don't take credit cards. We only take cash.' "

While many taxi companies accept credit cards, Plasencia said some individual drivers won't accept them because they don't want to pay the fees.

His pointed criticism comes while the local taxi industry is in flux. The established, regulated cab companies are at odds with new players Lyft and Uber, ride-sharing programs that are resisting regulation as they expand aggressively into Tampa Bay.

Then there's the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles such as taxis, limos, ambulances and tow trucks. The PTC's effectiveness has been questioned in recent years and its existence was threatened by the Legislature last year.

PTC chief inspector Mario Tamargo said inspectors spend every day making sure taxi drivers are following the rules and that their cabs are safe and clean.

"It's impossible to get everybody clean all the time," he said. "But we are out there and we are doing it."

The PTC has inspected 562 of 661 cabs so far this year, Tamargo said, and issued 224 warnings that drivers are required to act on. So 40 percent of the taxis the PTC inspected got a warning. The agency could not say how many taxi drivers were cited or suspended, however. Those statistics are available only for the 1,500 total vehicles that are regulated by the PTC and are not broken down by vehicle type.

TIA allows two companies to serve it: Yellow Cab of Tampa and United Cab Co. of Tampa pay for the right to do business at the airport. Officials at neither company returned calls from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.

Airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps said that TIA also keeps tabs on the cleanliness and service of the taxis and their drivers.

"(We) routinely and randomly inspect taxicabs that come on the property," she said. "If we find a driver that's not running the AC, if there's something wrong with the interior of the cab, we'll notify that driver's company.

"If it becomes a chronic problem, we could insist that driver no longer operate around here."

Santiago Corrada, the CEO of the Hillsborough tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay, also addressed the cab issue during Thursday's meeting. He said anyone can have a bad experience with a cab no matter where they travel.

But he said he also believes the local taxi industry is starting to improve, especially as it competes against Lyft and Uber.

"I think they're keenly aware of the criticism," he said of local cab companies. "I think they're keenly aware that the market is growing, and that they have services coming to the area that can outperform them and possibly drive the customer base away.

"I think all of those things will play into better service here."

Plasencia, though, said the hospitality industry has been talking about bad cabs "ad nauseam" for the past decade.

He also said he's been photographing those bad Tampa cabs. He declined to show pictures to a Times reporter, but said he will likely show them to the PTC one day.

Said Plasencia: "I can show you pictures that will make your milk curdle."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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