Cab drivers blitz Salt Lake City Council with complaints
Taxi service • Cabbies say plan to cut 68 cabs, one SLC company would hurt working families.
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Yes, it would hinder hotel guests, airport travelers, and folks trying to flag a cab in Salt Lake City. And yes, it would cost jobs — in a recession. But taxi drivers' biggest fear is that City Hall is poised to punish their families.

That is the message from drivers representing Yellow Cab, Ute Cab and City Cab, who mobbed the City Council chamber Tuesday to protest a proposal to eliminate one company and 68 taxis.

"You're killing me here," Yellow Cab's Charles Free admonished the council during a lengthy public hearing. "You're going to take one of these companies and take their capital investment and flush it right down the crapper."

George Eichert, who has managed at all three companies over three decades, argues the cab industry has done everything the city has asked, but received nothing in return but more rules. That includes annual fingerprinting, biannual car inspections and hefty insurance requirements. Making one go away and hurting 68 families as a result, he says, is "absurd."

"We're out there in the snowstorms when UTA doesn't run. We're out there on the holidays when UTA doesn't run."

Seven years in the making, the city's taxi-service overhaul calls for slimming three companies to two and capping the number of cabs at 200 — down from the current 268. The proposal is a byproduct of a 2005 independent study that was revalidated by airport officials, who stand to manage the city's taxi services.

But Council Chairman J.T. Martin insists keeping two to four companies still is an option. And Councilman Luke Garrott argues the plan still has much shaping to be done. "The council is definitely going to get its hands all over it," he said.

No action was taken Tuesday. But after an hour-and-a-half of testimonials, the council voted 4-3 to close the hearing. Members Garrott, Soren Simonsen and Van Turner dissented.

The proposal also calls for more cabs to be wheelchair accessible, and for all cabs to be five years old or newer. Drivers say there is no way they could afford such frequent upgrades. They also fret working for the airport authority rather than the city.

But research suggests many cars are run down, background checks are spotty and that 200 is the appropriate number to ensure sound city service. Airport officials took the lead in drafting the plan.

The real villain, drivers maintain, is the so-called "gypsy cabs," meaning the unregulated ground-transportation services ranging from vans and sedans to unmarked cars that look like cabs. Why should they get the best access to fares and get to charge any amount they want, cab drivers asked.

"Let's play by the same rules," cabbie Corey Larkin said.

Such "shuttle" providers also were on hand Tuesday, defending their businesses, and arguing they can coexist with the cabs.

Annie Fitzgerald is the director of guest experiences at the Grand America Hotel. Transportation demand is growing, not shrinking she said, pleading the council not to cut either the cabs or private providers.

"You're not just hurting jobs, you're hurting families," added Leslie Smith. "Let's not work to hinder an already hard-shipped economy. Let's work to build it and preserve jobs."

Martin predicts the council will take action next month.

"These guys," he said, "have sat in limbo way too long."

djensen@sltrib.com