THE CATCALLS BEGIN as soon as the gray Cadillac pulls into the Sheraton Hotel's driveway. "He's a briber!" shout the cabbies lined up along the curb, pointing to the Caddie's driver. He gets out, shrugs, and heads into the hotel.
The Cadillac is a type of limousine known as a "town car," named after the Lincoln model of the same name but including a variety of midsized luxury cars. Already popular back East, town cars have hit Seattle streets with a vengeance this year. They offer passengers a little more luxury than a taxi but less flash than a stretch limo. It's widely believed their drivers also offer hotel doormen and bellhops between $5 and $10 for every passenger sent their way—infuriating cabbies who complain that the town cars are stealing their business. "We stand in line sometimes for three hours [waiting for fares]," complains cabbie Iqhal Dhillo outside the Sheraton. "Meanwhile the town cars have made three trips to the airport."
Cabbies seethe even more at the fact that town cars are far less regulated than taxis. Limousine licenses go for the taking, while longtime city and county moratoriums on new taxi licenses have nurtured what amounts to a government- sanctioned black market: Seattle taxi licenses go for as much as $15,000—$90,000 with a Port of Seattle permit to work the airport.
Not just money but pride is at stake in this independent-minded trade; each man's taxi (cabbies are overwhelmingly male, and mostly immigrants) is his own small business, and an escape from manual labor. "I am not going to beg the doorman," says an Ethiopian native who identifies himself as Agegne, waiting for fares along with a dozen other cabbies across from the downtown ferry terminal. Indian immigrant Avadar Sokhey, standing nearby, adds, "If I start paying $5, then the town cars will pay $50—there's no end to it."
HOTELS LIKE THE SHERATON forbid their staffs from taking such bribes, apparently in vain. "It pretty much is about money being handed back," says one Sheraton valet. "I don't think there's any disagreement that [bribery] occurs," agrees Craig Leisy, who supervises the permitting of city taxis in Seattle's Consumer Affairs Unit. "The only disagreement is how prevalent it is."
Jayelyn Thresher, president of the Limousine Association of Washington, maintains that the problem lies with "illegal" town car operators. These operators troll for fares just like taxis—even though state law requires that they accept only prearranged passengers—often in second-rate cars with insufficient insurance, and without state-mandated inspections. Thresher, an owner of BryLyn's Chauffeured Transport, says these crafty operators steal fares from her town cars too; passengers who've reserved a BryLyn town car with their credit card pay for the mistake.
Yet it doesn't take much to operate a legal town car, compared to the requirements for taxis. Aside from insurance and a car inspection, all a would-be town car operator need plunk down is $40 for a state business application; a limousine driver need only pass a physical exam. A physical is the least of it for a taxi driver, who must also pass geography and English tests, undergo defensive driving training and, in the city, abide by 33 pages of new regulations including a dress code (full-length pants and collared shirts, except in summer). "There are no rights for taxi drivers," complains Dhillo the cabbie.
TO BE NOT JUST A DRIVER but a taxi owner means buying a license from one of the 643 people who own them. The city and county stopped issuing new licenses in the early '90s, ending an experiment in deregulation that yielded a proliferation of taxis, many of them badly maintained and poorly driven, charging wildly fluctuating rates. Along with re-regulation came an official effort at managing competition to assure drivers a decent livelihood.
Now town cars are wreaking havoc on that effort, but the city and county say they have no control over the number or behavior of limousines because these are regulated by the state. The city did however facilitate a January meeting between limousine and taxi operators and their respective regulators, at which there was talk of proposing stronger limousine regulations.
Still, no one denies that passengers are entitled to a choice of transport. Some argue that town cars are gaining ground because they offer more comfort and better service than taxis, for $5 to $15 more for a trip from downtown to the airport. The fact that most taxi drivers are immigrants also plays in, and gets exploited by the competition: "If you want luxury, you don't want Apu who can't speak a lick of English, who's got a turban on his head," says T.J. Anderson, manager of Crystal Coach Limousine Service. "You don't want the smell of curry."
Never mind that it's the taxi drivers, not the town car drivers, who must pass the rigorous tests. In his blue turban, Avadar Sokhey laments, "The plight of the cab driver is not good."