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St. Petersburg's thriving bar scene fuels cabbie wars

ST. PETERSBURG

It's a warm Friday night, a few minutes after 8, and Douglas Osterman-Burgess is maneuvering his cab around Red Mesa Cantina. He pulls up out front, on Third Street N, where a red and white sign says "Taxi Stand."

"Look at this," he exclaims. "I've been asking for this!"

The spot looks unremarkable but for him represents a victory. He says he has been "agitating" for this kind of change for three years. With extended bar hours and the ever-increasing lure of downtown, the city's entertainment district has turned into a taxicab battleground.

As patrons spill out at closing time, those who need a ride home might have to wait 45 minutes for a cab. Despite the demand, fights for fares often erupt.

"It gets very competitive," said St. Petersburg police Lt. Gary Dukeman, who oversees the downtown entertainment district at night.

Osterman-Burgess, 55, deals with it in part by reporting his fellow cabbies if they don't follow the rules.

From the driver's seat of his white and orange van, he sips from his 7-Eleven Big Gulp and points out the many ways cabbies break the rules. They don't bother to register. They steal fares. They park illegally.

"There are rules, people," he says. "If you don't like the rules, fight to get them changed."

• • •

The city extended bar hours until 3 a.m. in 2010, setting off an expansion of the downtown bar and club scene.

The city doesn't have taxi records back to that year, but in 2011, 573 taxicabs were registered to pick up and drop off within the city. So far this year, 549 have registered.

Still there are times that those hundreds don't seem to be enough, Dukeman said.

"On the busy nights, they run out," he said.

He described long lines waiting for cabs after popular concerts at Jannus Live, and a huge pickup in revelers who need a ride home after First Friday.

Dino Pinto, the marketing coordinator at Jannus Live, said he has seen cabbies jostle for parking spots as they line up to grab fares. "There's some yelling," he said.

But he's also struck by the lack of cabs during the day, especially mornings.

"It turns into a ghost town," Pinto said.

Those deserted hours are when Walt Grabowski, a driver with Yellow Cab, likes to start his shift. The cab scene at night is "ruthless," he said. A driver might cut you off as you pick up a flagged fare, or "scoop" potential customers if you don't arrive in time.

"They're not respectful," he said of fellow drivers. "It's really cutthroat, and I don't put myself in the position to be around it."

BATS Taxi, one of the city's largest companies, has contracts that allow drivers to pick up in places like the circular drive on the south side of Tropicana Field. They see the development of downtown as a plus.

"We're a healthy business of 33 years," BATS Taxi manager Renee Vallee said. "There's always going to be business, but we don't notice it in a negative way."

Osterman-Burgess' business is smaller. He started Downtown Yellow Taxi with two other men after years of driving for Yellow Cab. The owners carefully select each driver. Right now, they have 12.

He thinks the expansion of downtown has bred a seedy practice: cabs operating without the proper permits, scooping up his fares.

The permitting process for a year costs about $200, but also requires a $65 business tax, a vehicle inspection and a $90 driver permit, city business tax supervisor Glenn MacKinnon said.

When Osterman-Burgess spots a cab without one of these stickers in its back window — or with one he thinks is a fake — he reports it to police. He has been known to approach police officers on the street to complain about other cabbies.

He thinks rogue drivers are rampant.

Police can't cite unlicensed drivers unless they're seen picking up customers, Dukeman said. For instance, a cab that's permitted in Tampa and drops someone off in St. Petersburg isn't necessarily doing anything wrong.

"It's probably a rarity that I see a cab that doesn't have a city decal or city permit," Dukeman said.

• • •

Osterman-Burgess points to a cab parked outside Jannus Live that sports a registration sticker he thinks has expired.

He can't pull in to pick up fares because another cab is already there. So he lingers, his bumper sticking out onto First Avenue N.

He has been asking for more taxi stands for years. The changes, though slow, are coming, he says.

The stand outside Red Mesa is an example. But it's just one spot, and cabs will likely still wait in the alley next to the building. Once in a while, he says, a police officer will "get a bee in his bonnet" and tell them they can't park there.

There's also a particularly sought-after spot in front of the Birchwood on Beach Drive. It's technically a loading zone, so if he parks there he could be ticketed.

"Why should I have to break the law to do my job," he says, "when the city deems my job to be a valuable job?"

It's not a matter of value, but of numbers, city officials said.

The downtown boom means more work for cabdrivers, but also more drivers who want to park for dinner as well.

"We also have to have a balance between spaces reserved for taxis downtown and spaces for other things, like public parking," said Evan Mory, the city's director of transportation.

Osterman-Burgess wishes the city had more taxi regulations, as Hillsborough County does.

He would like to see the mayor form a task force to deal with the changing taxi landscape.

"Stop looking at us as part of the problem," he says, "and look at me as part of the solution."

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

St. Petersburg's thriving bar scene fuels cabbie wars 06/07/14 [Last modified: Saturday, June 7, 2014 10:49pm]

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