Critics accuse taxicab officials of soft touch on long-haulers

Review finds fewer citations than Taxicab Authority had claimed

The process to catch illegal long-haulers is simple.

Enforcement officers park at a Strip resort and wait for cabs to come in. They note the dollar amount on the taxi meter, ask passengers where they came from and do a quick calculation. Should the fare be as high as the meter says?

If the amount is considerably higher than it should be, the officers have probable cause to ask about the route and whether the driver warned passengers in advance that what may have been a faster route also was a longer and more expensive one. Drivers who fail to give that warning can be cited for long-hauling.

But that rarely happens, according to Nevada Taxicab Authority data analyzed by VEGAS INC.

Of the 1,594 citations written by Taxicab Authority officers in 2012, only 120 were for long-haul violations. There were 27.1 million taxi trips recorded in 2012, meaning that long-haul tickets were written for just 0.0004 percent of the rides.

That’s despite promises by enforcers to crack down on the practice that has plagued Las Vegas for years.

Long-haul scams exist in almost every city that has taxis, but it is of particular importance to Las Vegas because the taxi industry and tourism are so vital to the valley’s economy.

Moreover, the city has a ready-made route through the tunnel under the runways at McCarran International Airport that’s perfect for long-hauling. The tunnel was built to relieve traffic at McCarran and give users an alternate way in and out of the airport. But instead, many taxi drivers use the route to pad their pockets. Cab companies have been accused of looking the other way.

Charles Harvey, administrator of the Taxicab Authority since 2011, said when he was appointed that long-hauling was at the top of his list of things to fix. Last summer, he and his chief enforcement officer, Ruben Aquino, announced a high-profile enforcement strategy that included a checkpoint and signs at McCarran. At the time, Harvey said the agency wanted to spotlight the issue and catch violators in random stings so they could be fined or suspended.

The state announced a short time later that the approach had worked. Harvey and the Taxicab Authority were recognized by the Nevada Department of Business and Industry as “Agency of the Year.” The authority was lauded for issuing 612 long-hauling citations and citing 107 “gypsy” cabs. Gypsy cabs are unlicensed vehicles operating as cabs.

But VEGAS INC found far fewer citations when reviewing Taxicab Authority records. In fact, there were only 120.

Harvey attributed the discrepancy to poor record-keeping and antiquated police report software. It was the first time the Taxicab Authority submitted any type of accounting to the state.

• Of the 120 long-haul citations issued, the most (35) went to drivers who work for Yellow-Checker-Star. Frias Transportation Management drivers had the second highest number of tickets (28). Those are the two largest taxi companies in Southern Nevada, based on revenue, according to the Nevada Taxicab Authority and VEGAS INC research.

• Of the 120 tickets issued, 78 drivers pleaded guilty and 19 cases went to trial. The remaining drivers were found guilty because they failed to appear in court, had their cases moved to another court or had the long-haul violations dismissed because other more serious charges were filed.

• Of the 19 cases that went to trial, only 11 drivers were found guilty. Five were found not guilty, and the rest either pleaded no contest or were remanded to another court.

Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry, which oversees the Taxicab Authority, admitted that recognizing the Taxicab Authority as the agency of the year was a publicity stunt. The agency doesn’t have the funding or manpower it needs to fulfill its mission but is trying and should be recognized for that, he said.

“They’re making an effort to ... upgrade the level of service to the community, to think outside the box with new programs and to tackle the multiple challenges they have,” Breslow said. “I wanted them to know that I noticed, and I wanted the public to know.”

Breslow applauded Harvey’s efforts but laid the responsibility of managing the taxi companies and their drivers squarely in his lap. Breslow oversees 14 agencies.

“I am an administrator,” Breslow said. “It’s really up to Charles Harvey and his team to attack the problem.”

In the same conversation, however, Breslow put the onus not on enforcers but on the taxicab companies that have been accused of turning a blind eye to long-hauling, or even encouraging it.

Long Haul Checkpoint

Taxicab Authority Police Senior Investigator I. Williams stop taxi driver Tesfaye Beshah at a long haul checkpoint near the entrance to the airport tunnel exiting McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on Friday, June 8, 2012. Beshah got a ticket for long hauling. Launch slideshow »

It “will always be an issue because you’re depending on the warm, kind spirit of the taxi driver to take you the shortest route to save you the most money,” Breslow said. “How prevalent it is is up to the industry to train and police their drivers.”

Harvey said he planned the high-profile enforcement checkpoint at the airport because the agency is undermanned and underfunded and needs a fresh approach to the problem.

“We had to break up the old system of doing business,” Harvey said. “The old model was that investigators would come in for their shift, go out in the field, patrol their favorite fishing hole and write citations, which is great. But to me, that was just a Band-Aid approach. We wanted to send a message to the companies, the drivers and the riding public that we were going to take certain things seriously.”

But sources within the Taxicab Authority say a big part of the problem is that Harvey and other supervisors still fail to demand that officers do the routine police work needed to catch long-haulers. Cab drivers have early warning-systems to alert one another to enforcement patrols and often tip off colleagues that officers are staked out at a specific resort.

Critics say taxicab administrators are focused on less pressing matters.

Harvey, for example, developed a two-week “specifics academy” to train recruits on topics such as counterterrorism and gang activity.

The Taxicab Authority is charged with enforcing transportation regulations, and critics say its limited resources should be dedicated to clamping down on long-hauling. Critics accuse Harvey and Aquino of being more concerned with expanding the responsibilities of the force and giving officers more exciting assignments.

Harvey denies that. He said it’s not unusual for gang members and drug users to have contacts in the taxi industry and the Taxicab Authority can help Metro get those criminals off the street.

Another new task officers have taken on is protecting members of the Taxicab Authority’s board of directors at meetings. Officers recently began screening the public with metal-detecting wands before allowing them into meetings. Union unrest has resulted in tempers flaring at the meetings, but no incidents of violence have been reported.

Harvey defends his efforts against long-hauling, saying cab companies have begun to cooperate more with enforcers.

“Companies seem to be doing more than what they’ve done in the past,” he said. “They do their own internal investigations, and many times, they come to resolutions to problems before we enter the picture. Most companies are using some form of progressive discipline. They’re refunding money to passengers and having more communication with customers than they have in the past. Victims are getting letters of apology, and we’re seeing drivers suspended and fired for long-hauling.”

Having a better rapport with companies will go a long way in solving the problem, Harvey said. But he’s also looking at other solutions.

The most obvious is adopting a flat rate for cab trips to the Strip and downtown, a move cab companies oppose.

The five-member Taxicab Authority is required by the Nevada Administrative Code to solicit comments from affected parties, such as cab companies and unions, before rendering a decision. Two years ago, a proposal to adopt flat rates for Strip trips from the airport was shot down by the taxi industry. Several companies say similar systems in other cities have led to labor unrest and that using meters is a more equitable way to charge passengers.

Harvey also is looking at posting a chart listing approximate fares from the airport to various resorts at McCarran cab stands to give passengers an estimate of what they should be paying. He’s considering requiring similar charts on the seat backs of cabs if costs aren’t prohibitive.

Critics say regulators need to get tougher with the industry. Some have called for a zero-tolerance policy that would require drivers’ licenses to be suspended after a single long-hauling offense. Others say the companies themselves should be fined if one of their drivers long-hauls a customer.

Harvey said his office plans to dedicate more resources to audits in the weeks ahead. Drivers are required to document their trips and fares in a log tied to their meters and odometers. Audits would uncover some long-hauling incidents that regulators could then follow up on.

There’s also a new technological solution that’s being proposed, ironically, by one of the cab companies accused of long-hauling.

Frias Transportation Infrastructure, which is owned by some of the same executives as Frias Transportation Management, recently demonstrated software that traces a cab’s movement and stores trips in a database. The Taxicab Authority is considering a pilot program.

Tags: Business