License to drive
A proposal for a new taxicab company highlights concerns about Missoula’s existing service and the state’s conflicting regulatory process
It’s Friday night in Missoula—well, actually it’s early Saturday morning—and the late-night, inebriated crowd at Finnegan’s Family Restaurant is arriving in droves. At 1:30 a.m. the place was busy, but by 2:30 a.m. it’s a full-fledged freak show. Loud drunks horse around in the aisles, two scantily clad women grope each other in a booth, and a waitress dodges stumbling revelers as she tries to deliver two plates of hash browns and pancakes to two bleary-eyed customers.
It’s time to go home, but the question is how. For one couple, home is three and a half miles away and, with the temperature dropping 20 degrees since the evening began, walking in sandals and a light jacket is out of the question. There’s a bus stop right outside, but the Mountain Line service stopped running at 7 p.m. The free U-DASH late-night university shuttle—casually referred to as the “drunk bus”—only serves University of Montana students, and even if you have a Griz Card it’s too late; the U-DASH stops running at 2:30 a.m.
That basically leaves intoxicated night owls one option: Yellow Cab, Missoula’s only late-night taxicab company.
At around 2:50 a.m. the Yellow Cab dispatcher says it’ll be 20 minutes before the taxi will be waiting in front of Finnegan’s. The dispatcher doesn’t say that the driver will charge 50 cents for each minute he has to wait, but it doesn’t matter because 10 minutes later two customers are waiting in the lobby, scanning the parking lot for the telltale yellow light.
Twenty minutes turns into 30 minutes and still no cab. A call to Yellow Cab dispatch is met with assurance that the driver is on his way. Another 20 minutes later, the would-be cab customers are dozing on the bench in the lobby of Finnegan’s, still waiting for a ride home.
Then, just before 3:50 a.m., nearly a full hour since the first call to Yellow Cab was placed, a cab driver pokes his head in the front door of the restaurant and belts out, “Who’s looking for a cab?”
The drowsy customers are startled from their early-morning slumber but quickly get up and amble out to the cab and open the back door.
“Come on in, sweetheart,” says a thoroughly blotto passenger to the female customer. A second passenger is sitting in the front seat next to the driver, complaining loudly—and somewhat incoherently—about an earlier run-in with Missoula’s Finest.
“That’s fucking bullshit!” he says repeatedly as he recounts how he was arrested for arguing with a cop about an alleged open intoxicant. He says it wasn’t an open container of alcohol but a snoose spitter he carried out of the bar.
The cabbie takes off, cutting through a motel parking lot and then speeding up West Greenough Drive, rolling through the stop sign as he turns off Duncan Drive onto Lolo Street, and generally frightening his newest passengers. Finally, the cab pulls into a driveway to drop off the first two passengers, who don’t appear to have enough money to pay the $10.50 cab fare. As they argue with the driver, the couple from Finnegan’s pays their fare and gets out to walk the last two blocks home. It’s 4 a.m. before the night is finally over.
This late-night experience is not unusual. For years, critics of Missoula’s only 24-hour taxicab service have raised concerns over long waits for service, pickups that never happen, poor riding conditions, confusing and unusually high fares, and a general lack of customer service. The consequences of these problems include intoxicated would-be customers finding alternative ways of getting home, including getting behind the wheel.
And with only three to five taxicabs working to cover the city in a 50-mile radius, the hour wait experienced at Finnegan’s is on the short side. In the winter, when UM is in full swing and the temperatures are below freezing, wait times can extend to as much as three hours, according to a Missoula Police Department official. The situation has police, multiple bartenders and a good deal of Missoula’s partying-class all acknowledging the same thing: the city needs better taxicab service.
A Missoula couple thinks they have an idea that will help improve the situation. Mick and Jessica Murray have applied to the Public Service Commission (PSC) to start the state’s first all-hybrid taxicab service. Green Taxi, they propose, would not only help alleviate the strain that creates the kind of situations found at Finnegan’s on a busy Friday night, but also serve Missoula in an environmentally friendly way.
On May 24 the Murrays will plead their case to a PSC panel in an official court-like hearing in Missoula. To receive their license, they’ll have to convince the PSC that there’s a need for the service that isn’t being met by the current providers. While evidence would suggest it’s an easy sell, the state’s current regulatory environment is actually a considerable hurdle to clear.
Mick and Jessica Murray’s decision to try to start Green Taxi wasn’t made on a whim. Nine years ago, Mick first considered the possibility of starting a cab or van service in Missoula, but after looking into the strict PSC regulations, he was put off.
“In reading through the language where it talks about not causing harm to existing carriers, I knew it was going to be a legal battle,” Mick recalls. “No way did I have the financial means at that time to enter into that and lose.”
But now after years of planning, the Murrays are ready to take that leap. Last fall they filed their application along with a $500 nonrefundable application fee with the PSC, and they’ve spent the last several months building their case for Green Taxi. Next week they’ll take that case to a PSC hearing in Missoula.
The regulatory hurdles the Murrays will have to clear are confusing and conflicting. Anyone wanting to start a cab or van service must: a) demonstrate a public need for the service; b) prove that existing motor carriers cannot or will not meet the public need; c) be fit to perform the services proposed; and, most importantly, d) show that existing transportation services will not be harmed by the granting of a new license. If all of these criteria are met the PSC may issue a certificate of public need and convenience to Green Taxi.
The Murrays are confident they can address items a and c. In proving their case, they plan to call a host of “shipper witnesses” who will testify under oath to the fact that the existing services aren’t meeting the needs of the public. Jessica Murray says she’s lined up around 40 people to testify at the hearing in favor of Green Taxi. (See “Thinking Green” sidebar for more on the Murrays’ vision of the Green Taxi service.)
But even if Jessica and Mick are successful in demonstrating a need for more taxi services, the PSC will only grant them the authority to operate to the extent that that need is established. That means it’s possible the commission could decide the current cab companies—which include Yellow Cab, which serves the general public, and Medicab, a non-emergency medical taxicab service with handicapped accessible vehicles—could meet the expressed need by adding more vehicles and shifts. So the Murrays will also have to prove that the existing cab companies cannot—or will not—meet that demonstrated need. According to state regulations, if Yellow Cab and Medicab can convince the commission that they are able and willing to meet the public demand “in a reasonable and timely manner, considering all circumstances,” the PSC will not grant a license to the Murrays. And in the months since Green Taxi’s application was filed, Yellow Cab has responded by adding more shifts.
“Yellow Cab has increased its fleets on Friday and Saturday nights,” in response to the increased demands, says Ryan Willmore, the Missoula attorney representing both Yellow Cab and Medicab in their protest of the Green Taxi application.
But the most difficult part of the Murrays’ case will be the last part of the criteria—showing that existing transportation services will not be “harmed” by the granting of an additional license. Yellow Cab or Medicab need only convince the PSC there’s no room for another cab company, and that more competition will hurt their businesses financially. According to PSC regulations “harm caused to existing carriers may be a basis for denying authority if the harm is contrary to the public interest.”
Yellow Cab owner Bob Gray says his company turned a profit for the first time in seven years last year, indicating that it’s a tough marketplace for taxi services. He says any additional competition could cost Yellow Cab severely.
“There’s a lot at stake here for us. We’re just barely getting by,” says Gray, who has owned Yellow Cab since he bought it from his father in 1982. The company has been in Gray’s family since 1959 and has been, for the most part, Missoula’s only service provider. “The company’s lost money six of the last seven years. We’ve got 17 people on the payroll; all of our incomes are going to be impacted if they grant another permit.”
The Murrays say they have no interest in harming Yellow Cab, but they do have an interest in picking up some of Yellow Cab’s slack during peak hours. Besides, says Jessica, competition should bring out the best of all of Missoula’s transportation businesses.
“That’s what encourages customer service,” Jessica says. “What’s the incentive to treat your customers with dignity and respect if there’s no competition?”
Green Taxi’s application—and the imminent debate over whether its license is warranted—is just one part of an overriding concern with Missoula’s late-night transportation.
The busiest time of the week for taxicabs is generally the time bars start shutting down and intoxicated patrons are trying to find rides home. On a busy weekend like last week’s UM graduation, that can mean extremely long wait times between cab rides. When the weather is bad or when there are special events in town, like a Griz football game or a major rock concert, the problem is exacerbated.
“I’ve been doing this 31 years and I’ve noticed that part of what’s going on lately, especially around bar closing when downtown gets very busy, is the inability for our current cab service to supply enough vehicles to transport folks home from the bars,” says Missoula Police Capt. Dick Lewis.
Left with limited public transportation options, most bar-goers are left to find a designated driver, walk or drive home on their own. It’s the last option that has most people—including law enforcement—concerned.
“Our officers [hear of] numerous [taxi] requests that can’t be filled. Most of the busy nights people are waiting anywhere from one to three hours for a cab,” Lewis says. “That puts folks in a dilemma of ‘How do I get home?’ There are a lot of issues out there that need to be addressed.”
Lewis says he’s not sure if Green Taxi would solve the lack of viable transportation options, but he says adding an additional cab service would only improve what is widely considered a major problem on busy nights.
Maggie Collington, an outspoken bar manager at the Union Club, says she’s been fed up with the current cab situation for years. She says she went to the Missoula Police Department several years ago to see if there was anything they could do to get her customers into cabs and off the streets or out from behind the wheel of their cars.
“I went to the police and asked them to do something because I was the one who was calling the cabs every night and they weren’t showing up,” she says. “It’s unreal. They have the same number of cabs on the street now as they did when I came here 28 years ago and we’ve got twice the population.”
Collington says on busy nights she’s happy to call a cab for a customer who asks, but she often tells them it’d be quicker to walk to wherever they’re going than it will be to wait for the taxi to pick them up.
“I’ve left the bar after we finish closing down after 3 a.m. and there have been people still sitting on the bench out front waiting,” she says. “That’s ridiculous.”
The Murrays say these are the customers Green Taxi would be targeting: those left waiting by the huge demand for Yellow Cab’s services.
“We do feel there is a need here. And there is a niche to fill without causing harm to the existing carriers,” Jessica Murray says. “Just in terms of lag times and no shows, and when a cab goes to a residence and that individual has found an alternative ride…we’re just looking to pick up the slack in the system and not cause any harm. Just provide another alternative choice that’s also going to be empowering and good for the environment.”
But Gray dismisses the notion that Yellow Cab isn’t able to meet the demand for cab service in the community. He acknowledges that while delays aren’t uncommon during peak weekend hours, he says he’s now dispatching five cabs to try to accommodate the spikes. And as for the environment, Gray says he just ordered a hybrid car to add to his fleet that should arrive in June.
“We feel like we provide the service to everybody,” Gray says. “There are exceptions…but we added another shift for Maggot Fest [in April], and that seemed to work good, so we’re going to keep it on for a while and see how it goes.”
But a former employee of Gray’s says there are many problems Gray refuses to address. Steve Zeiler, a one-time Yellow Cab driver, supports the Murrays’ application and plans to share inside knowledge of his former employer at next week’s PSC hearing.
Zeiler drove a cab for Gray for 10 months before he was fired in April over accusations he pocketed $1.50 from a fare—an accusation he firmly denies. Zeiler contacted the Independent with complaints about how the current taxicab situation is being managed in Missoula several weeks before that incident.
“I talked to more than 2,500 customers in the last 10 months and it wasn’t long before I learned that something was inherently wrong,” says Zeiler. “Customers complained to me about missed appointments and late arrivals.”
Zeiler says he had a laundry list of complaints about the cab service, ranging from customers who missed medical appointments because a driver stopped to pick up another passenger, to drivers being forced to operate taxicabs that had broken speedometers and horns that didn’t work. But Zeiler says his complaints fell on deaf ears.
“There are just a lot of unwritten rules and policies in terms of how you function. Because when you’re working for a monopoly, the rules of business don’t apply,” Zeiler says. “You can do whatever you want, and nobody can come in. That’s the service, and if you don’t like it, you won’t get served. Period.”
Zeiler says Yellow Cab fired him in April shortly after he starting approaching Gray about some of the problems and complaints he was hearing from customers.
(Gray, after initially speaking with the Independent, directed further questions to his attorney, Willmore. Willmore said he had no knowledge of Zeiler’s firing and declined to comment on Zeiler’s accusations.)
One of Zeiler’s biggest issues—and one echoed by customers—is that Yellow Cab doesn’t have meters and bases its fares on a zone system. Even though the fares are approved by the PSC, the complicated method for determining them ride-by-ride is a source of confusion.
The base price for a fare from downtown, the least expensive zone, is $5.50. That’s just to get into a cab. As the cab travels from zone to zone the fares increase based on a chart. So, for example, to get into the cab at Finnegan’s, Zone 27, a rider pays $6 for travel anywhere in that zone. A trip from Zone 27 to Zone 32, marked on the northern boundary by Khanabad Way, is $7.50. Beyond Khanabad Way, every mile traveled is considered “out of zone” and costs $2 per mile. Therefore, a trip for two from Finnegan’s to Lower Lincoln Hills Drive, a distance of fewer than three miles, cost $10.50, and there’s no discount for shared cabs.
The zone doesn’t encompass the entire city, so people living on Missoula’s perimeter and outward pay a $2-per-mile charge in addition to paying for the nearest zone. For instance, if a customer lives one mile south of Zone 13 on Lower Miller Creek Road, the charge is $10.50 just to get into the cab. A ride from “in zone” to Missoula International Airport will cost no less than $15 each way.
But Zeiler says customers have no easy way of knowing what the fare will be once they’re in the cab unless they ask, and even then they’re taking the driver’s word for it. He claims that it’s not uncommon for a driver, especially late at night when transporting intoxicated customers, to overcharge and pocket the difference.
“If you’re in a monopoly you could give a shit about customers, and they’re going to pay you whether they miss their plane or doctor’s appointment or are late for work,” Zeiler says. “It’s absolutely disgraceful that that is the example that we set for anybody who visits this city. They can be ripped off before they even get to their hotel room and they don’t even know it.”
This problem extends beyond the issue of late-night demand. Another key segment of taxicab customers are those who are either too old or otherwise unable to drive.
Susan Kohler, executive director of Missoula Aging Services, is an advocate for Missoula’s elderly and disabled. She has heard numerous complaints from Missoula seniors. She says that on many levels Missoula’s transportation needs aren’t even close to being met. Couple that with the fact that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, men, on average, outlive their ability to drive by six years and women outlive their driving ability by 10 years. That means the number of senior citizens who need reliable and affordable public transportation is high and rapidly climbing. According to Kohler, the current cab services don’t pass muster with most of the seniors she talks to.
“The comments that I have received…is that, first of all, it’s not dependable,” Kohler says of the current cab service. “They don’t show up on time, so people are worried about getting to where they need to go on time. The other issue is affordability. People view the taxi as very expensive.”
And Kohler says these complaints have been chronic for years.
Part of this issue was supposed to be addressed by Medicab. According to attorney Ryan Willmore, Medicab is restricted to non-emergency medical transports, such as to a doctor’s appointment. The Mountain Line para-transit system offers curb-to-curb service for frail seniors and the disabled for $1 a ride one-way, but that service stops running at 6:30 p.m.; you have to call to schedule a ride two weeks in advance; and to be eligible, you must complete professional medical verification forms and applications. There’s also a Community Needs Van that serves the elderly and disabled, but that too needs to be scheduled in advanced.
Both the para-transit service and the Community Needs Van are in high demand, and as such those services are overburdened with requests for rides.
“Without competition we cover our ears and close our eyes,” says Zeiler, “and the loudest most desperate voice in our community becomes silent and invisible.”
It’s the plethora of stories like these that give Mick and Jessica Murray confidence in Missoula’s need for Green Taxi.
“We’re going to win,” Jessica insists. “We are in total agreement that we have all the pieces that it’s going to take to win this hearing.”
The Murrays say they’re not interested in running Yellow Cab or anyone else out of business. Instead, they see a niche that they can fill where other forms of transportation fall short.
Attorney Willmore, speaking on behalf of Yellow Cab and Medicab, is equally confident that his clients are up to the task of servicing Missoula’s transportation consumers.
“They feel they’re currently meeting the public need and they are willing to do whatever it takes to continue to meet the public need,” he says.
The main question will be whether the Murrays can convince the PSC that Green Taxi is a viable venture that won’t put a financial squeeze on Willmore’s clients.
But for those people stuck waiting for an hour or more for a taxicab at 3 a.m. on a Saturday, there’s a clear desire to have more reliable and dependable transportation options.
“I don’t care who it is who comes in here and operates,” says the Union Club’s Collington. “We need more cabs in this town.”
The Murrays’ vision for Missoula’s newly proposed taxicab service
by Yogesh Simpson
Mick Murray was at the pump last summer when he had the idea for starting a company called Green Taxi in Missoula.
“I was frustrated when diesel was over $3 a gallon and two of my closest friends were serving in Iraq,” says Murray. “Seeing Yellow Cab rolling around town at 11 miles per gallon at best, and being concerned about the air quality and the environment it seemed like a no-brainer… I can’t drive around without thinking about where oil comes from and that it’s a losing game. I saw this as an avenue to change things.”
Mick and his wife Jessica describe themselves as average Missoulians. He works construction part-time with Lennox Craftsmen and picks up additional manual labor when he can, and she is a full-time mom and part-time social worker with Walla Walla College’s School of Social Work and Sociology. With two kids and multiple jobs, they struggle to make it in Missoula.
“We’re just like every other Missoula couple,” says Jessica. “Just living paycheck to paycheck. It used to be that you just buy a fixer-upper, but now you start a business.”
Mick and Jessica both grew up in households supported by small businesses. Jessica’s mother ran a bakery out of their home and Mick’s father, Mike Murray (current county commissioner for Lewis and Clark County), owned a printing shop and bought eggs from the Hutterites to resell in Helena.
With their respective upbringings, the idea of owning their own business had been something they contemplated for years. In fact, 10 years ago Mick first explored getting into the transportation field by starting an airport shuttle, but the PSC’s strict requirements and $500 application fee kept him from realistically pursuing it.
Now, he and Jessica are steadfast in making Green Taxi a reality. Soon after his gas pump epiphany, Mick saw an article in Audubon magazine about green cabs thriving in New York City. He was intrigued by the business model described in the article—after making a large initial investment, the vehicles are cheaper to run—and identified a need in hyper-environmentally friendly Missoula.
“We felt there was room in Missoula for another carrier based on the conscience of Missoula,” says Jessica. “Not that [people] would stop using Yellow Cab but that they would want to use a hybrid if it was available.”
Mick originally planned on operating diesel vehicles fueled with biodiesel, but when he learned Missoula was not going to meet new air quality standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, he abandoned the idea of diesel-run cars in favor of hybrids. The couple expects the Toyota Prius to be their fleet vehicle.
The hybrids will cost significantly more than the sedans used by Yellow Cab—Prius sticker prices begin at $23,000—but the Murrays are counting on the hybrids’ dramatically better fuel economy to offset their cost in the long term.
With an already approved $107,000 loan the Murrays plan on purchasing two hybrids and employing as many as six drivers. Mick will manage the business and do some of the driving. Jessica will help with the bookkeeping.
Specific details of Green Taxi’s proposed services are still being figured out, but the Murrays say they will likely operate seven days a week and only shut down from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. Because of the language of the PSC regulations, the Murrays will not set their rates lower than Yellow Cab’s, which would be perceived as trying to undercut the current carrier.
Although Green Taxi’s rates will be comparable to Yellow Cab’s, the Murrays do say the way their fares are calculated should make the service more beneficial to some customers. Specifically, they hope to use a metered system rather than Yellow Cab’s zone system, which they say may lower the cost for those traveling short distances.
“It’s about giving back to the community,” says Jessica. “It will be a public service like it’s supposed to be.”
While that may include reducing the number of people driving home from the bars at 2 a.m., Mick maintains the business’ primary concern is helping wean America from foreign oil.
“I’m politically motivated more than wanting to drive drunk people around,” he says. “Using less oil does more to support the troops than putting a yellow magnet on your gas tank.”
Green Taxi goes before the Public Service Commission Thursday, May 24, at the Missoula County Extension Office, 2825 Santa Fe Court, at 9 a.m. The hearing is open to the public and anyone interested in testifying is encouraged to attend.