THE BUZZ: Cabbies See Red

By on September 29, 2015

Yellow checkered past paints taxi tiff

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Let’s get this straight. When cab drivers caught wind of a fare increase proposal that would allow them to charge more for a ride from the airport, they were made unhappy? Actually, it wouldn’t so much “allow” them as mandate they charge $5 more per single passenger trip and, in some cases, call for as high as a 57 percent rate hike. Cause for celebration, right? Yet many taxi owners are against it.

What gives?

First off, you have to understand cabbies. They’re a different breed — at least around here. Fiercely independent, taxi company owners steer their way around insurrection better than they navigate Google Maps. Their drivers are likeminded – a rebellious, moonlighting lot hard-boiled from shuttling drunks to addresses they can’t remember, mopping up puke piles and listening to rants about overpriced fares at two in the morning. If cabbies were a state, they’d be Alaska.

When Jackson Hole Airport director Jim Elwood and his board settled on rate adjustments for ground transportation departing the airport, the news went over, as one cab owner eloquently put it, “like a turd in a punchbowl.”

Rod Lewis, proprietor of Cowboy Cab, called the extra money he could soon charge for an airport run “asinine.”

“The things that have been allowed to happen to get this far are just incredible,” Lewis said. “When I started my business we were charging $12 to town and now it’s 35 bucks, going up to 40. I guess with the government printing money like its toilet paper it’s just keeping up with inflation.”

Lewis is not alone in believing the extra cash won’t help his bottom line in the long run. At least not enough to deal with the flack he expects to get from irate customers who will blame him for ripping them off.

“It seems like the new raised rates are at the point of gouging people,” Tyler Pittman, owner and operator of Snake River Taxi, said. “Three people going from the airport to town are going to be charged $65, up from $42? Yet the same number of people can go from town to the Village for $45? It’s the same distance. People are going to be asking me why we are charging these fares.”

After hearing of the airport’s plan – an agenda item that did not include taxi owners or drivers in the process – Pittman said he called an “unprecedented” emergency rendezvous of his peers. He rallied his competitors to form what he says is a self-regulating coalition that would like to present their suggested trip rates to airport leaders.

Gold Medal winner in Planet JH Best of 2015 Reader’s Poll for best taxi service, Dan Kaighn of Daniel’s Cash Cab, said he just returned from Alaska and is still trying to form an opinion after being initially gladdened by news of the proposed hike.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the need is for it and what is the motivation behind it. I’m not sure who to point a finger at or why. I know a lot of the cabbies are not happy about it,” Kaighn said. “But pricing is way too high, already. Everybody is used to the pricing now. Why fix what isn’t broke? We don’t have meters in the car so what are the people going to think? They aren’t going to want to pay that.”

Airport officials are granted absolute authority to impose ground transportation rates by a decades-old county ordinance. It’s standard practice observed in airports throughout the U.S., according to Elwood. The thinking behind the decision to raise rates taxis charge and lower rates for shuttle services like Alltrans was an opportunity to be consistent with the community’s values, Elwood said. The new Comprehensive Plan and Integrated Transit Plan have an emphasis on mass transportation. The rate hike discourages single-passenger trips in cabs in the form of fiscal pain and incentivizes the use of buses with cheaper tickets.

“Our overall objective is to be consistent with the community values established in the Comprehensive Plan and Integrated Transit Plan,” Elwood said. “It’s just being good community members. Also, the previous rates were not based on any sort of mathematical formula. We also wanted to ensure all transportation options were looked at, collectively. How do you incentivize the point-to-point onesies, twosies and threesies to consider the shuttle rather than a taxi? That’s where the $5 flag drop and price per mile [formula] came from.”

Elwood also stressed decisions about rate changes were not made entirely at a financial level but were more focused on providing a better customer experience in the same way the airport’s dress code for cabbies and other standardized compliance rules have been put into effect in recent years.

When hacks heard why airport bigwigs were jacking their rates, they formed two camps: They either don’t buy it or they believe it’s an example of government intrusion in the private sector.

In general, the livery industry in Jackson Hole bristles at authority. At the very least they have a distrustful view of City Hall. The taxi trade ran maverick in Jackson through the 1990s and early 2000s. Some operators were banking six figures a year. Anyone, it seemed, looking to pocket a couple hundies for a few hours’ work merely had to stay semi-sober on a Saturday night and stick a hand-scribbled sign on his dash and, presto, he was in the car service business.

In 2003, an all-out war between cab drivers and the airport board broke out. It was eventually smoothed out but the bitter aftertaste and growing complaints led Mayor Mark Barron to ride herd on the industry just a few years later. The rodeo was on.

Using ordinances, fees and permits, town leaders managed to take most of the buck out of Jackson hacks. They also created a distrust that still festers today.

Mike Allen, who closed his business called Paradise Taxi,  believes the regulations intended to level the playing field actually created imbalance and opportunity for fly-by-night operators to cheat the system. “Some of those regulations caused hardship for us,” he said. “We had to pay state, county, and town taxes; Unemployment and Worker’s Comp. We suddenly had overhead chewing into our profits whereas the illegitimate guys were pocketing all their cash and maybe not reporting things like sales tax. It created opportunity for some of these pirates to run under the radar and we couldn’t compete with them.”

“Those of us in the business who are stupid enough to pay unemployment and these other taxes that add up to about 27 percent per employee are getting undercut by these eastern European companies, these bandits that occasionally get caught but they just close down and reopen under a new business name,” Lewis added. “And I had one working for me collecting unemployment while he went hunting after the summer season.”

As far as the rate hike on the table, most cabbies think it will harm more than help.

“People don’t like to think about cabbies having children or a family. They think we are all pirates, gypsies and renegades,” Allen said. “But this kind of meddling is why I got out of the business. Stop manipulating the market. I think they should at least let the cabbies in on decisions. The airport doesn’t know what it costs to run a taxi business. And why not give incentive in the form of discounts or coupons for riding the bus instead of negatively impacting the cab industry?”

Kaighn likes some of the changes he’s seen. Still, he feels handcuffed by fare mandates he doesn’t understand. “The cab industry has improved a lot in the past five or six years. It used to be old Astrovans breaking down and fares were all over the place,” he said. “Now, we could be talking about a lawsuit, but we want to keep a good relationship with the airport like we’ve had. You know, I’ve sometimes charged less for a friend or a steady customer as a way of saying thanks for their business. Now you are telling me I can’t do that? That’s baloney. That makes no sense.”

Elwood concedes, with 30-something-odd carriers in the valley by his estimation, not everyone will be happy. He added that he is grateful for the feedback from taxi owners and is considering all viewpoints leading into this Friday’s decision on whether or not to implement the new rates.

Perhaps the weightiest opposition to the hike is longtime Airport board member Jerry Blann, who also operates Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village. Blann is concerned for skier tourists who may find mass transit ill-suited to their needs in getting to the slopes. Blann, however, supports the general notion of removing vehicles from valley roads in deference to buses. Parking fees at JHMR have risen in recent years, compelling more people to opt for the START Bus shuttle from Stilson – a service partially subsidized by the resort – or to carpool to the Village.

Though Blann has sided with cabbies on the airport dilemma, at least one driver remains unconvinced. “Blann I’m sure has his hands in this,” Dean Miller alleged. Miller once owned Westbank Cab but now drives for another owner after selling out. As of press time, Blann could not be reached for comment.

Miller has company in the conspiracy theory camp. “There’s more to it than what we are being told. There are ulterior motives involved,” Kaighn said. “There is definitely something up, something fishy going on here. Maybe they are just trying to give more business to Alltrans because they are in a lot closer relationship with the Airport than taxis and private cars, and the Airport makes a lot more money off them.”

Another cab owner believes airport officials are eventually aiming for one exclusive company to run out of their facility: Driver Provider.

Miller speculated moves at the airport are designed to pave the way for Uber to get a foothold in Jackson Hole.

“They claim they want to get cars off the road? They send out over a thousand rental cars a day out there. How come they aren’t cracking down on that?” Miller wondered. “I think it’s a power play on the part of somebody to get Uber into here. That wouldn’t surprise me. Somebody is going to get that 20 percent that the drivers don’t get [in the Uber payment policy].”

Elwood said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Uber come to Jackson given the ride app’s popularity across the country. But it had nothing to do with internal discussions and no communication has ever occurred between the airport and transportation companies like Uber or Lyft, he said.

“First of all, there is no collusion going on,” Elwood stated, flatly. “We are just going about change as fairly and as thoughtfully as we can. There is no subplot past that.”

Town councilman and Airport board liaison Jim Stanford said he is generally supportive with what Airport managers come up with. “I don’t take cabs to the airport. I think the fares are absurdly high, and it’s been my experience cabbies aren’t ever really looking to cut money off the fare,” he said. “I take the Ride-to-Fly shuttle. I think that service is great.”

Stanford did say he was a bit surprised no public comment or chance to hear from taxi drivers was taken at the Airport board’s last meeting. PJH

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