It's another busy afternoon on the Back 40, a sloping, crinkled taxicab holding pen pinned between Natural Bridge Road and the Marriott hotel near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Vladimir Levin, a Ukrainian with cheeks the color of cherries, pilots a dominoes match on the trunk lid of one taxi. Ayanaw Asnakew, an Ethiopian, reclines in another cab, listening to Fresh Air on National Public Radio.
This blizzard of white airport taxis -- arrayed in horizontal lines, ten or more cars long and four, five, six rows deep -- are waiting to be radioed to "the wall," a second, smaller buffer located closer to the airport. There the cars linger a little longer before advancing to lines at the airport's east and main terminals.
That's the Back 40 paradox: teeming with taxis, but rarely enough riders to go around. Airport cabbies, most of whom are immigrants, say they typically work sixteen-hour shifts and take home less than $15,000 per year.
Last month the airport's 250 cabbies learned that Lambert officials are planning to solicit bids for a revamped cab service. Some of the drivers obtained copies of a draft of bidding instructions, which presumably will be sent out to local taxi companies. Dated September 20, the document calls for bids to be submitted by December 3, after which a single cab company will be chosen to do business at the airport, rather than the eight small firms that currently operate there.
The proposed bid proposal requires the winner taxi provider to pay $500,000 for a five-year contract, an amount immigrant cabbies say is well beyond their means.
"We call it a trap," says Abera Shiferaw, a native of Ethiopia who drives a cab and owns Gateway Express, one of the eight firms that now serve the airport. "We call it a trap to destroy small companies."
Not true, counters Gerard M. Slay, Lambert's deputy director. Slay confirms the plan to, as he puts it, "enhance airport revenue and improve customer service," but the airport's second-in-command says requests for proposals have not been sent out and no deadline has been set.
Slay's comments notwithstanding, Shiferaw and his fellow airport cabbies say they have plenty of cause to feel embattled.
The Metropolitan Taxi Commission has issued licenses to 229 airport taxis -- far more than the 150 to 180 Slay estimates are necessary. Another 961 licenses have gone to "on-call" taxis, which circulate within St. Louis city and county. While airport taxis may operate only one way (from Lambert), on-call cabs are permitted to circulate throughout the city and county and drop off at the airport. Additionally, on-call cabbies may transport passengers from Lambert if they're summoned by phone -- a routine occurrence at Lambert, despite the fact that a pack of airport taxis is ready and waiting only a few paces away from the airport's courtesy phones. And while many on-call companies charge passengers a flat rate from the airport -- $25 is the typical fare to downtown St. Louis -- airport cabbies charge according to the meter, with the average fare for the same trip running $34. (One on-call firm, St. Louis County Cab Co., charges the metered rate.)
Moreover, airport taxi operators pay the MTC an annual licensing fee of $1,100. The annual fee for on-call cabs is a mere $55.
"How's that happen?" asks Romania-born Ioan Ziub, president of ATC, Inc., the largest airport taxi company. Late last year, Zuib and his fellow airport cab-service owners sued the MTC for setting arbitrary rates. The suit is scheduled to be taken up in a St. Louis County court next January.
Mark Goodman, an attorney who is representing the airport taxi drivers, says the only explanation he's received from the MTC regarding the fee disparity is that the commission spends considerably more resources regulating airport cabbies.
MTC director Michael Tully says he "had nothing to do with setting the fees" and directed inquiries to Patrick J. McCarthy, the MTC's attorney. McCarthy describes airport and on-call taxi services as "two different animals." On-call companies pay lower fees, says McCarthy, because their expenses, such as maintaining 24-hour operations, are significantly higher than those of airport firms.
Ziub has a theory: On-call taxi owners Basil Rudawsky (St. Louis County Cab Co.), Dave McNutt (Laclede Cab) and James Harris (Harris Taxicab Company) hold three of the nine appointed MTC seats. "They are the most powerful people on the commission," Ziub maintains. (Gateway Express' Abera Shiferaw is also a member.)
The on-call honchos stand to gain if the airport chooses a new contractor, Ziub argues.
Ziub says the airport is setting the bar too high -- that none of the eight firms now serving the airport could possibly ante up the required $500,000 for a five-year contract or meet other requirements listed in the airport's draft proposal.
"We have a woman -- 52 years she's owner of a company -- and she's not qualified," Ziub contends.
On the other hand, the airport's requirements seem well-suited to the on-call outfits. "If they put [taxi service] out for concession, I'm certainly going to look at it," says Laclede Cab's Dave McNutt.
Seconds James Harris, a fellow MTC board member and proprietor of Harris Taxicab: "As a businessman I would say 'yes' to bidding. It would be an opportunity for us to grow."
Harry Haggard, owner of Allen Cab and St. Louis Auto Livery, says he'd never pony up so much money to the airport. "I don't see the business there," Haggard says. "And I'm really surprised that they're even considering something like this. It sounds like they're trying to squeeze some of the little guys out of business."
If the airport contracts with a single company, Haggard says, "that would create a big, big problem as far as possible conflict of interest, especially if it was one of the cab owners/commissioners."
Slay argues that a single contractor will enable the airport to "operate with more strict terms." Lambert, he says, would be able to exercise more control in requiring newer vehicles, prohibiting taxis from refusing short trips and instituting a better system for helping passengers recover lost items.
St. Louis has a history of segregating immigrant-run cab companies from their American-owned brethren. Prior to 2000, when a small, Ethiopian-owned company brought a racial-discrimination lawsuit against St. Louis County (which at the time regulated airport taxis), airport taxi licenses were limited to 129 cars belonging to 7 white-owned companies.
The court ordered the county to deregulate, whereupon nine new companies -- many of them immigrant-owned -- secured licenses, and the number of cabs servicing the airport doubled. Increased competition led to a bribery scandal in which three people (two men who enforced taxi-line rules and one cab owner) pleaded guilty to related charges in early 2002.
In 2003 the Missouri legislature enacted a statute establishing the city-based Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) but leaving intact the two-tiered system of airport and on-call taxis.
Ziub concedes the current system of eight firms needs fine-tuning. "The management we provided the airport was not as it should be," he says. "It was poor."
After learning of the airport's plan, Ziub and the other seven airport cab companies formed the Coalition for Taxicab Drivers and appointed Ziub to run it. He says the coalition hopes to streamline billing and improve relations with Lambert. "We created a framework for what the airport wanted," he says.
"They say a tree does not make a forest," muses Oluwole Asubiojo, an Ethiopian-born airport cabbie. "When you come together, you are stronger."
Still, complains Gateway Express owner Abera Shiferaw, "It's impossible for us to win. There's no way we can beat out big companies, companies with huge capital and political connections."
For the drivers, the stakes are high. "I send one [child] to college this year," says Amanuel Ghiwot, smiling. "He's a 3.6 student. So I only spend close to $1,000 extra payment. The rest was scholarships."
Without the job, many worry they'd have to leave St. Louis.
K.J. Singh came to St. Louis two years ago from India. Last year he gave up his job as a gas-station attendant to drive a cab. Singh was a marketing manager for a large chemical company before leaving India with his family for "dreams of America."
Says Singh: "You may call them 'illusions' if we have to leave this."