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Super Bowl cab plan steams Tampa drivers

A plan to bring in 200 cabs from Pinellas and Pasco has Hillsborough drivers worried that they'll lose business.

Some fans leaving the 1991 Super Bowl in Tampa were so desperate for transportation that they offered ambulance drivers hundreds of dollars to drive downtown or to Ybor City.

Greg Cox, who runs the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, wants to make sure that doesn't happen again. So Cox has come up with a plan:

Borrow as many as 200 cabs from Pinellas and Pasco counties for the week leading up to the Jan. 28 Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, so this time fans won't have to depend solely on Hillsborough County's 550 cabs.

"The NFL said we needed to have close to 800 cabs for the game," Cox said, "and that's what we are aiming to do."

Cox plans to import taxis from the Yellow Cab operation that serves Pinellas and Pasco counties with temporary permits during the week before the game. The out-of-town taxis won't be answering dispatches; they'll be going to hotels, restaurants and other places where potential riders are waiting.

But Cox's solution miffs some Hillsborough County cabdrivers, who fear they will lose business on what should be their biggest week of the year.

"The big question is whether there will actually be enough business to go around," Arnie Mize, a United Cab driver, said as he waited for a fare at Tampa International Airport on Monday.

Cox's challenge over the next four months is to convince the Hillsborough drivers that everyone can make money.

He already has worked out agreements with the Yellow Cab and United Cab companies in Hillsborough, but he knows there's still the potential for some ugly scenes when Pinellas and Hillsborough drivers show up at the same locations.

"Cabdrivers tend to see anyone taking a fare from them _ whether it's a bus, a limo or whatever _ as their enemy," Cox said.

At Tampa International, Hillsborough drivers still grumble about how they lost much of last year's Final Four business to large buses brought in by travel groups and corporate hosts.

Some drivers say the Super Bowl decision is the latest entry on a long list of indignities of the job.

Arnie Mize pays $430 a week to lease hiscab from the taxi company and also pays for his gas, about $120 a week. That's $28,600 a year he has to make up in fares before he clears a dollar for himself.

His solution is to work 70 to 80 hours a week, often from 10 a.m. to midnight. "You just do what you've got to do," he said.

Still, some drivers make more than $50,000 a year after their hefty expenses, and some Hillsborough drivers say they will be able to do just fine on Super Bowl week because they know where to go to get the best fares.

Another factor in their favor: Pinellas and Pasco drivers won't be allowed to go to Tampa International.

"It might be okay," said Otis Jacobs, a Tampa driver who has worked for United Cab since 1980. "Maybe people can look at this as something we are doing to help the area."

The loss of as many as 200 cabs for the week shouldn't hurt, said Nick Cambas, who runs Yellow Cab in Pinellas and Pasco counties, because his fleet alone has about 500 cabs.

"We are real happy to be doing this, partly because it means our drivers could, say, take someone from Clearwater Beach to Tampa and then get a fare in Tampa," Cambas said. "That way, they wouldn't have to "deadhead' all the way back."

A driver is "deadheading" when he has to return from a long trip with no rider aboard.

Super Bowl officials expect that the cabdrivers will charge their normal rates for the week before the game. In Hillsborough, the rate is $1.75 a mile, while Yellow Cab in Pasco and Pinellas charges $1.60 a mile.

The local per-mile rates are similar to those in cities such as Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco and Chicago, where they range from $1.40 to $2.

In the next few weeks, Hillsborough County's Cox will organize Hillsborough drivers' meetings to sell the merits of his plan.

The Tampa Bay Super Bowl XXXV Task Force will be involved in one of the meetings, pitching the idea that courtesy is all-important as the Tampa Bay area shows itself off to visitors.

Also, Cox is working with the Tampa Area Cab Drivers Trust group, an organization that represents Tampa drivers, to try to deflect criticism.

"Hopefully, once the Super Bowl week starts and all the drivers are busy, this will become old news fast," he said.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.