No Fare

Driving his Yellow Cab taxi down A1A, Jay Cunningham is on a mission. "The other drivers call me Don Quixote," he says with a slight New England accent. "But really, I'm just stubborn."

On this recent Saturday morning, Cunningham is patrolling Fort Lauderdale Beach. The weather is perfect. Tourists bustle in and out of restaurants and stores. Waves crash gently against white sand. It's paradise. But Cunningham, who's lived in South Florida for more than two decades, doesn't even comment on the weather. Like Cervantes' idealistic hero, this cabbie wants to right a wrong.

The driver's-side window is cracked, and dangling between Cunningham's index and middle fingers is a smoldering Marlboro Ultra Light. His eyes are fixed on the roadside, looking for evidence of a scheme that he says bilks unwitting tourists and disadvantages honest cabbies. "There's one right there," Cunningham says, pointing to the left. "The green van in front of the Clipper."

A van with county license stickers on its passenger-side windshield waits outside the Sheraton Yankee Clipper for its next fare. It's participating in an illegal scheme in which hotel concierges bypass taxis and herd guests into more expensive town cars and vans, with the drivers providing hotel employees with healthy kickbacks, Cunningham says.

"We used to have three or four cabs lined up at every hotel on the beach," the cabbie says angrily. "Now we don't even bother, because we won't get any work."

The concierge-limousine partnership may be nothing but standard scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours entrepreneurism. But it's illegal, 100 Broward taxi drivers have charged. According to county ordinances regulating for-hire transportation, all car services must be arranged in advance. Only licensed taxi drivers such as Cunningham are allowed to pick up fares without appointments.

"Broward isn't enforcing the regulations," says Alipour Bahram, owner of Dolphin Limousine Service, one limo company that actually does make advance appointments in deference to the rights of taxis. Even at hotels with which he has a contract, such as the Sheraton Yankee Clipper, there are problems, he says. Kickbacks, overcharging, strong-arming. "They [the front-end hotel employees] don't care even if the guy has insurance or not," Bahram says. "The management needs to look at the companies they're using. If the companies don't have insurance, the hotel could be liable."

It has been tough, Bahram says. He has seen his business drop noticeably since the concierge-driver partnerships sprang up about three years ago. But the taxi drivers, having been essentially barred from the lucrative beach runs to the airport and Port Everglades, have experienced a bigger bite out of their business.

Broward County officials are aware of the problem. In February, Cunningham filed a petition with the signatures of 133 taxi drivers asking the Broward County Commission to require the Consumer Affairs Division of Taxicabs and Limousine Regulations to enforce the laws already on the books. "Taxi drivers are being cheated of their lawful business," the petition reads, "and hotel guests are being deprived of their right to reasonably priced transportation."

But the cabbies aren't getting much sympathy from county regulatory officials or from the tourism industry. "Hotels provide services to their guests," says Larry Kaplan, assistant director of the county Consumer Affairs Division, "and if you're a hotel guest who has had a couple of cocktails, you may want the hotel to arrange transportation for you. I've been at hotels in D.C. where the concierge or the bellhop will ask you, 'Would you like a cab or a car?' It's what the finer hotels do."

Even if that were true (maybe we don't spend enough time at "finer" hotels, but we can't remember the last time such a choice was offered), it is by now a moot point on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Because of the limo services' success, it's rare to see taxis waiting in front of hotels. In fact, the drivers say they're often run off by hotel employees, putting an extra squeeze on the cab-riding public. "We're losing so much money," Cunningham says. "But the public is losing money too, because the limos can charge whatever they want."

Complicating the issue is a certain ambiguity in the Broward ordinance. While the law specifies that pickups from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades must be arranged at least one hour in advance, it requires only "pre-arranged appointments" elsewhere in the county.

So would it be considered "pre-arranged" if a hotel employee places guests in a town car only seconds after notifying its driver? "That's questionable," Kaplan admits.

The ambiguity has opened a loophole for aggressive outfits like Armand Beatriz's Silver Fox Car Service. Operating out of the Holiday Inn at 999 Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Beatriz has simply cut out the middleman -- the concierge -- to create his own turnkey operation. Beatriz rents lobby space at the Holiday Inn where he hawks day trips, skidoo rentals, and, of course, his car services. He charges $16 for a single-person ride to the airport, $8 per person for two people, and $6 per person for three or more. A taxi would be about $14 and could take as many as five people.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson