Cabbies With Concerns

Tucson taxi drivers express frustration at city crackdowns—and more restrictions may be coming

As the setting sun cast a glorious red glow across the city's skyline, a taxi parked at downtown's Greyhound bus station. That's a common practice elsewhere—but in Tucson, it's unusual and illegal.

Because of disputes involving cab drivers—some of which turned to fisticuffs—about four years ago, the city of Tucson banned taxis from parking at the bus station. It blanketed most of the property, which it owns, with signs stating: "No Taxi Parking."

Several independent cab company owners, though, believe the ban isn't being enforced uniformly. At a recent meeting, they expressed their frustrations.

Esam Abusaudu of Budget Cab Company claimed that one of his rivals had an improper monopoly situation at the Greyhound station. Nancy Langan of Jeannies Taxi seconded that sentiment, but she suggested two companies were involved.

"I'd get a ticket," Langan said when asked after the meeting what would happen if she parked at the Greyhound station for 15 minutes. Langan said she believes there are financial arrangements between people working at the station and certain cab companies that result in exemptions from enforcement.

That certainly seemed plausible recently, when the Weekly watched a taxi stop in the Greyhound employee parking lot for at least 15 minutes—and nothing happened. The driver waited and then drove around the main parking lot for five more minutes before returning to the employee lot for a while and then finally securing a fare.

"Greyhound can let cabs park on (the property they lease from the city) if they want," commented Chris Leighton, director of the city's ParkWise program, which oversees parking enforcement. However, he then added: "We've not been told (by Greyhound) to leave any particular cab company alone."

According to Bonnie Bastian, media relations manager for Greyhound, the company does not have a parking agreement with any taxi company. "They shouldn't have been there," she said about the cab in the employee lot.

The Greyhound bus station situation is only one of several issues that some taxi-company owners have with ParkWise. Another is the harsh treatment they said is being dished out by the city's parking-enforcement agents.

"Every time we turn around, we're getting tickets for something we're doing," declared Rick Winkler of R.E.M. Transport. "But we're providing a valuable service by taking someone home who might be a little drunk."

Several other owners at the meeting expressed the feeling that ParkWise employees were being hostile toward them. They listed numerous complaints, including the lack of taxi stands in some high-traffic areas.

"The city's attacking the little guy," Langan said, adding that things have deteriorated in the last year. "We've become victims."

Leighton disputed that allegation, saying: "We could be perceived as unfriendly to those who habitually break the law." He points out that around the Fourth Avenue retail district, taxis often park in handicap spaces and crosswalks, safety violations that cost $175 per ticket.

But it was the expansion this past summer of the parking-enforcement program into nighttime hours that really irritated company owners, Leighton said. Two parking agents are out in the evening now, supplementing the four to six who work during the day.

Another major complaint the owners have is that tickets are mailed to them instead of being given directly to the taxi driver. Because of that, they said, the owners, and not the driver, are responsible for paying them.

On the other hand, one of the drivers who attended the meeting admitted throwing punches at another driver. Someone else even mentioned the potential for doing the same thing with ParkWise agents.

According to statistics supplied by Leighton, the number of total tickets issued by ParkWise this year to date is about 31,000. That's about the same pace as in 2005.

Leighton also supplied figures which show that 10 percent of the citations ParkWise issues are warnings, not tickets. "I want my staff to correct the situation," he stated, "not necessarily write a ticket."

Langan said the independent cab-company owners would like to work with city officials on areas of contention. But she didn't think it will happen, "since they're making money."

There is one issue, though, that the two sides may be discussing shortly: Leighton's staff is researching the introduction of a City Hall taxi-medallion program.

"There are about 450 cabs in Tucson now," Leighton said about what he characterized as, essentially, an unregulated system, "but there should be about 200 to provide adequate service. Thus, there's more supply than demand, and some drivers get desperate and behave inappropriately."

Leighton said a medallion program would restrict the total number of taxis while mandating biannual vehicle-safety checks, something not required now. He also said he thought imposing a requirement that the driver not have a felony conviction within the last five years would be reasonable, and said taxi drivers should receive information about the location of the city's main attractions.

"The program would keep a level playing field," Leighton said about the possible introduction of medallions. He thinks it might be springtime before a decision is made whether to move this idea forward to the City Council for consideration.

At least one taxi company owner said some of Leighton's suggestions for the medallion program may have merit, but he would like to discuss the details further.

"I'd need more information about how the selection would be made," Winkler said about which companies would receive medallions, "and wouldn't be opposed to meeting about it."

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