TAMPA — For hours under the sun in a lot near Tampa International Airport, a harsh course in economics plays out.
Dozens of taxicabs snake into a queue. Men shout and engines start. The line barely budges.
Rene Jeune is up front now, having waited two hours for one customer. Farther back, Jean Bourdeau watches birds fight. He has just $25 in his pocket for five hours of work.
A few men play cards. Others read. Some doze off.
All tell a similar tale: They work 80-hour weeks, yet take home what a waiter earns in tips — about $200 to $300. Some are said to be homeless, sleeping in their cabs and living for their next fare.
This is the taxi business in Hillsborough County.
In most Florida counties, including Pinellas and Pasco, supply and demand work themselves out. Here, the rules are different.
Hillsborough's taxi regulating agency — the only one of its kind in the state — restricts prices, limits the number of drivers and enforces two companies' domination of the market.
The resulting system caters to customers and companies, but it leaves drivers working double just to get by, more than 50 drivers told the St. Petersburg Times.
To operate a taxi here, drivers must enter expensive lease agreements — up to $545 per week — with one of eight local companies. Drivers said the arrangement puts them at risk: To meet their weekly debt and fuel costs, they often drive unsafe hours without health insurance and on company car insurance that covers passengers' luggage, not the drivers themselves.
Still, company executives said the system succeeds for drivers who know how to work it. And the industry's top earners agree.
Now state lawmakers are weighing in. Matching bills moving through the Florida House and Senate could revamp Florida's taxi industry. The change would strengthen company positions but also open the door for cabbie independence.
This week, a local activist and a few veteran drivers hope to gather the more than 500 local cabdrivers to talk policy and their options going forward.
"We're a ragtag bunch," said veteran cabbie Vincent Tolbert, who is pushing for a driver association. "But everybody should be entitled to have something to look forward to, other than working all the time."
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Taxi drivers in Tampa feed in packs. They swarm SoHo on Saturday nights, line up before dawn for cruise ships, hover around coveted cab stands outside downtown hotels.
"You can sit in this taxi stand for 12 hours and have maybe two taxi fares, maybe just one," said 25-year veteran John Bailey, his eyes locked on the Hyatt doorman. "You go over to the Convention Center with one guy — that's like $3.35."
Most drivers don't profit until the weekend. And if the week was especially slow, drivers say they drive as long as it takes — 14, 15, 18 hours.
"Sometimes 24," Yellow Cab driver A.J. Gern said. "If you've got a bill to pay, you work 25 hours."
Driving nonstop is risky with thin car insurance. Companies don't cover drivers or the cab. If drivers cause a crash, "it's on them," said Rob Searcy, manager of the county's second-largest cab company, Gulf Coast Transportation. He called more coverage "cost prohibitive."
Plus, unless covered by a spouse or the county plan, Hillsborough cabbies don't have health insurance.
"If one of us gets hurt, we have to take up a collection," Tolbert said.
Tolbert is the type of driver company executives love — a salesman. He hands out sharp business cards, stays on call 24/7 and covers his dashboard with sticky-note reminders to pick up someone or drop off someone.
One recent afternoon, he serviced a diverse clientele: a partially paralyzed woman for whom he made lunch, an elderly woman for a pro-rated ride, a former cabbie to his new job at a strip club.
Tolbert and other drivers who develop clients and work dispatched calls make the most — upwards of $600 per week. But given their long hours, pay still hovers around minimum wage.
"It's like you're working two jobs, but you don't have to change clothes," Yellow Cab driver Dave Dickes said.
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The Public Transportation Commission, which is unique in Florida, controls Hillsborough's taxi industry. The seven-member panel of elected officials sets fares, a dress code and the number of drivers. A team of inspectors enforces the rules.
The agency was created to protect customers. And though some drivers complain about its strictures, most understand that the cap on permits — locked at 598 barring a jump in population — prevents even more cabs from flooding an already diluted market.
The Yellow Cab Co. and Gulf Coast control 87 percent of the county's permits and nearly all calls for service. It's their drivers who get exclusive access to the airport.
They also charge the most. Drivers pay Yellow Cab $545 per week for a cab, a permit to drive it, limited insurance and the customers who call for rides. Gulf Coast's flagship line, United Cab, charges about $500 for the same. The six smaller companies charge less. All drivers pay for gas.
Those who own their cab still pay a company for the right to use it, though for about $100 less.
Cab company executives say the lease system has worked for years. Drivers say it did work for years.
When the economy collapsed a few years ago, drivers say they shouldered the burden. Their customers vanished, but the companies prospered. With unemployment rising, more people decided to give taxi driving a try, which meant more revenue for the companies.
"There was no concession on their part," said Tim Fasano, a United Cab driver who blogs about the industry. "Times have never been better for them. They have more drivers than before the recession and they're getting higher leases now."
Yellow and United managers say lease prices increased because they invested in better dispatching technology.
They also dispute drivers' claims of poverty-line earnings and say their business model is not as profitable as depicted. Their overhead and risk is high, they say. Searcy says Gulf Coast can't fill all its cabs and is "barely paying our bills." Yellow Cab co-owner Louie Minardi said Yellow isn't far behind.
But the most recent statement of income for either company on file with the commission show Yellow Cab reported $451,211 in profits for the first half of 2006.
The company filed for bankruptcy just four years earlier.
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Most drivers dream of owning a permit. It would mean true independence, a tangible asset.
The companies would love to own permits, too. Under the current system, they simply rent county permits that can't be bought or sold. Though the permits generate revenue, they don't accrue value for the company.
Pending legislation likely would grant companies their wish. It also would move drivers toward theirs — though some wonder for how many and at what cost.
The bill would authorize governments across the state to grant holders complete ownership of their taxi permits, which then could be bought, sold or inherited. The industry calls these permits "medallions," and they're the standard in New York City and Miami-Dade County.
Mario Tamargo, the county's chief taxi inspector, said if the bill passes, his staff would recommend the commission turn companies' existing permits into medallions. And he wants any new medallions auctioned off, with a share reserved for veteran drivers, who would have five years to pay off their bids.
Some veteran drivers say the bill isn't perfect, but believe it gives drivers their first real chance at freedom.
"You have to crawl before you can walk," Tolbert said. "We want this bill to pass."
Minardi and Searcy say the bill would give them the flexibility to shed permits in slow times.
"I'm not going to run out and sell them tomorrow," Minardi said. "But (medallions) would slowly but surely spread out the ownership."
Other drivers doubt that claim, questioning why good businessmen would want to sell their golden geese. And some wonder why the county would automatically award companies all the medallions.
"Put them back to the (commission)," Bourdeau said. "Then auction them off to drivers and (the county would) make all that money."
In Miami-Dade County, medallions sell for $200,000 on the street, the city's top taxi official said.
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When the industry's major players met last week to discuss the pending legislation, something unusual happened. Three drivers were invited to participate.
Tolbert, Bailey and Voguel Noel were told about the county's plan for medallions if the bill passes. They liked what they heard.
But the bill simply authorizes the commission to create medallions. It doesn't stipulate how.
"It remains to be seen whether the interest of the drivers will really be protected," Noel said.
Late last year, the three drivers enlisted local activist Dena Leavengood to help them organize their peers and create a voice for their demands: routes to health insurance, life insurance and better car insurance.
Now, with a possible decision coming on medallions, they say a drivers association is essential. Two meetings have already yielded interest from 250 drivers. On Tuesday, the group will meet to formalize the association and explain the pending bill.
Minardi and Searcy say it's a line they've heard before. They've tried to help their drivers get health coverage but failed. In Searcy's case, "10 out of 500 drivers showed up," he said.
Still, they're willing to listen again.
Minardi reasoned, "I'm no better than what my drivers are."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.