About five years ago, when Kevin Sandberg drove for Yellow Cab, he says, a man stumbled out of a downtown bar and waved Sandberg down. Sandberg told him the fare would be $12.50, but the man only had $8. Instead of taking the taxi home, he walked to his car. "I sat there," Sandberg says, "watching the guy try to put his keys in his car, and I said, 'Dude, come on. I'll give you a ride.'"
The next day, Sandberg says, the man went to the Yellow Cab office to pay what he owed—and then some. That Sandberg had let the man pay a partial fare didn't sit well with management, but the incident gave Sandberg an idea, one he's been mulling over almost ever since: launching a non-profit, donation-funded cab company dedicated to driving home would-be drunk drivers.
Start-up cab companies in Missoula seldom make it up the on-ramp, because the Montana Public Service Commission, which regulates motor carriers in the state, lays out spike strips in the form of burdensome requirements. But Sandberg, an on-and-off-again roofer, trucker, and cab driver, appears to have found a workaround. By incorporating as a non-profit, Sandberg's service might skirt PSC oversight.
In June, Sandberg's attorney asked the PSC to clarify whether it has jurisdiction over entities operating as non-profits under the Internal Revenue Code. On August 12, the commission issued a memorandum stating that it does not. The commission accepted comments on the finding through Sept. 9, and PSC attorney Jim Paine says it will issue a final order "in the near future."
"Being a non-profit entity, that's the key," says Sandberg, a scruffy redhead with a mustache. On a recent morning, he sits in a coffee shop wearing an Anheuser-Busch hat and a Philadelphia Eagles jersey. A pen's tucked behind his ear, and he's brought a stack of papers that detail the beginnings of Ucallus, his non-profit. He says he hopes to have it up and running by Oct. 1, which is the University of Montana's homecoming, when Missoula bars will be packed.
"Let's say you're sitting in the bar and you're eyeing that pretty girl at the bar who thinks you're cute," he says. "You go down and buy her a drink and she orders a Long Island iced tea, and there goes all of your cash flow. Then she disappears out the door with somebody else, and now you're broke, going, 'Damn, this sucks.' And you're drunk, too. Well, we'll give you a ride home anyway. The next time you see us, you pay it forward."
Sandberg says Ucallus won't charge passengers, but it will accept donations. He says passengers should pay whatever getting home safely is worth to them, which he thinks will be enough to support the venture and its employees.
He's also soliciting donations from area bars, trying to collect enough upfront money to cover Ucallus's insurance. He lists about 10 Missoula bars that have already contributed. One is Red's Bar, on Ryman Street. Its owner, Mike Helean, says the existing cab companies aren't meeting the demand for transportation on Friday and Saturday nights. The lack of a reliable ride home, coupled with DUI crackdowns, "definitely has an effect on my business," Helean says. "I'm a believer that people should be able to go out and have a little fun if they have a safe ride home...I think people are way less likely to get in their cars and drive if they have an option for a ride home."
Ucallus joins other local programs intended to curb DUIs, such as Home Safe Missoula, through which bar patrons can receive taxicab vouchers for a ride home. Respondents to a July survey conducted for the Missoula County DUI Task Force recommended, above all else, that the city needs more alternative transportation options at night.
Not everyone supports Ucallus. Victor Hill, the owner of Yellow Cab, is probably Sandberg's biggest critic. Sandberg, Hill says, "hasn't found a way to skirt PSC regulation—he's going to try to slide in between the law, and it's not going to work."
Hill has fiercely opposed attempts by would-be cab companies to enter the Missoula market, and his perspective matters: two of the PSC's requirements of motor carrier applicants are to prove that "existing motor carriers cannot or will not meet the public need" and that "existing transportation services (including motor carriers) will not be harmed."
It appears Hill won't have such sway over Ucallus, and he finds that irksome, since he fired Sandberg years ago for a range of what he claims are unscrupulous activities—all of which Sandberg denies—and still disdains his former employee.
Hill says Sandberg's non-profit will ultimately be undone by liability. "Inevitably, something goes wrong. When something goes wrong, that's when everything catches up to you. You can skate for six months or a year or two years, but sooner or later, something's going to happen...When that happens, his little DUI service is going to go tumbling down the river like all those other illegitimate serves that people try to start up."
If legitimacy is at all a function of ambition, Sandberg might prove Hill wrong. He's already looking to launch Ucallus in Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls. "All of these places have the same problem that we have with the PSC," Sandberg says. "Now that we have the exemption from the PSC, we can expand to every major city."