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Airport debate raises broader question: Too many taxis in Portland?

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Airport debate raises broader question: Too many taxis in Portland?

PORTLAND — Even as city councilors on the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee refrained from making recommendations last week about how to respond to complaints about overcrowding by specially licensed airport taxi cabs, another, broader question arose.

Does the city just have too many taxis?

Some drivers and councilors believe it does.

Portland's population itself is not large enough to support the taxi industry's size, said some at the July 18 committee meeting. "We have far too many cabs in Portland for the number of people being served," Councilor Cheryl Leeman said.

There are 176 licensed cabs and 308 licensed drivers in Portland, for a population of 65,000 residents.

Taxi driver Charles Bragdon argued that the industry standard should hover around one cab per 1,000 people. In Portland, the statistics break down to roughly one taxi for every 369 residents. In New York City, there is one taxi for every 630 people; in Washington, D.C., which is considered bloated with cabs, there is one for every 75 people.

And in Bloomington, Ill., a college town of roughly 74,000 people that also serves as a twin city with neighboring Normal, there are three full-time taxi companies, with 29 vehicles between them. Independent vehicles for hire there are allowed to operate just three days a week, mostly to help clear out the downtown district bars.

Randall Chasse, the owner of Scarborough-based City Cab, complained at the meeting that a glut of cabs in the Portland market has made it difficult for anyone involved to make a reasonable income.

On its own, the Portland International Jetport has a clear over-abundance of cabs, manager Paul Bradbury said. In 2010, the airport instituted a cap on the number of non-reserved taxi licenses it would hand out to drivers who want to queue up at the airport, waiting for fares without being called specifically.

The goal was to reduce through attrition the number of taxis licensed to operate at the airport  from 51 to 40, although any taxi may pick up or drop off if reserved by a customer. Two years later, there are still 49 taxis with non-reserved taxi licenses, in part because many of the drivers have transferred their licenses, which must be renewed annually but have no expiration dates, via power of attorney arrangements.

Attempts last year to stop the power of attorney transfers met with protest and a lawsuit from the airport cab drivers, who are all immigrants, mostly from Somalia. At the committee meeting last week, the council chambers were full of taxi drivers, many of whom work from the airport and oppose measures to change the system that they fear could result in the loss of their non-reserved taxi licenses, and their livelihoods.

But on Friday in the holding lot where airport drivers wait their turn, one flashed the thin stack of dollar bills he had made that day. He had started driving at 8 a.m.; by 2:30 p.m. he had collected about $20 from three fares.

Another said he thought the city should regulate the overall number of cabs.

Portland is unusual for not regulating the number of taxi licenses available, said Alfred LaGasse, chief executive of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, a national trade organization that supports fleet-owning transit companies. The "vast majority" of cities with more than 10 cabs regulate the number allowed in some way, he said.

The city considered a taxi board in 2010, but failed to find willing members, Councilor Kevin Donoghue said.

Donoghue agreed that both the airport and the overall taxi markets are over-saturated. "The general taxi market is a classic tragedy of the commons example" he said, thanks to the relatively low-barrier entry into the industry.

"I don't have a clear policy solution to it other than I recognize that a flooded market hurts people's ability to make a living," Donoghue said.

Donoghue pointed out that some local cab companies are quite successful, even growing.

Those include 207 Taxi, which started operating with three cabs last December. This week, its seventh car hit the road, owner Garrin Brady said Monday.

"We're barely able to keep up with the amount of work," he said. The key to his success, he said, has been offering superior service. "Business 101," Brady said.

The argument that some drivers made at the transportation committee meeting, that 176 cabs for just 65,000 people is too many, is flawed, Brady said, because Portland's cabs actually service a much broader coverage area that extends to neighboring communities that together are home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Brady does not support increasing city-wide regulation of the quantity of available taxi licenses.

"I don't think limiting the amount of cabs would be solving anything," he said. More beneficial, he said, would be enforcing the rules the city does have in place,  like no smoking in cabs.

Brady and city officials recognized the challenge in enforcing those rules, since in order for the city to investigate complaints they must be made formally and can't be anonymous.

Suspending a single driver's license for an infraction would send a clear message to the rest, Brady said. The number of cabs might not shrink, but the quality of service would rise, he said.

"It will improve the industry," he said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.