Cabbies cause gridlock in Portland

They clog downtown block to protest city's plan to increase taxi fleet

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PORTLAND — Cab drivers clogged a downtown block Wednesday to protest the city's plan to increase the taxi fleet by 35 percent, contending the expansion will jeopardize their livelihoods.

The 30 or so cabbies who circled an Embassy Suites hotel — sometimes obstructing traffic on the street in front of the lobby — also called for the city to pass an ordinance making it illegal for hotel doormen to demand money from them in exchange for fares.

The city has proposed increasing the number of taxi permits from 382 to 514 over the next three years. Portland has not boosted its number of permits since 1998, and Portland's 6.6 taxis per 10,000 residents is far fewer than cities such as Seattle (11.3), Denver (21.7) and Atlanta (38.1).

Red Diamond, a driver for Broadway Cab, said putting another 132 taxis on the road will "absolutely devastate" cabbies' ability to make a living. A city report released last week shows drivers typically make less than the minimum wage while working 12-hour days.

"Our back is against the wall; it's an extremely desperate situation for us," said Diamond, who represents cabbies on the city's private-for-hire transportation board.

Diamond said he pays Broadway Cab $450 per week to lease his vehicle for daily 12-hour shifts. He keeps whatever he makes over $450, subtracting gasoline costs. At the end of each shift, he turns the keys over to another driver, who has also paid $450 for a weekly lease.

Five of the city's six cab companies operate in this fashion, or something similar. The exception is driver-owned Radio Cab, the city's market leader. Its drivers, who are said to make more and work less than cabbies from other companies, were noticeably absent from the demonstration.

Adding more vehicles to the fleet will help create a taxi culture in Portland and ultimately benefit existing drivers, said Frank Dufay, administrator for the city's Private for Hire Transportation Program, which regulates the cab industry.

Dufay said people living on the edge of city limits sometimes must wait an hour or more for a ride. And too many drivers spend their time waiting for fares at the airport or in front of hotels, he said, bypassing customers who might need a short trip to a bar or restaurant.

"It's pretty impossible right now to just flag down a cab," Dufay said.

The other plank in Wednesday's protest was an anti-kickback rule that has been approved by the city's private-for-hire transportation board but has yet to be placed on a City Council agenda.

Drivers displayed signs on their cabs such as "End Hotel Corruption" and "Quit Taking Bribes." They say doormen will divert hotel-to-airport fares -- a $32 ride from downtown -- to other drivers unless they pay up. Doormen at Embassy Suites were singled out, but the cabbies say it happens at other hotels.

Doormen at the Embassy Suites referred questions to hotel general manager Steve Jung. He said the hotel has a written policy forbidding doormen from engaging in such behavior.

"If they were caught taking kickbacks, they would absolutely be dealt with," Jung said.

Dufay said the issue is common throughout the U.S. Though much of the evidence is anecdotal, he said Portland doormen generally want $10.

"The downside for the guests is that the cab drivers will take a longer route to the airport," he said.