No Fare: Why You Can’t Call a Cab

By Beacon Staff

On a recent morning in Kalispell City Hall, a quorum of the state Public Service Commission convened to determine whether the operator of Kalispell’s lone taxi service should be allowed to continue to operate. It was a quick and sparsely attended hearing, with Don Hines representing himself as he sought to continue running Kalispell Taxi, while the commissioners and the PSC’s attorney, Jim Paine, questioned him on whether, despite numerous complaints by customers and other taxi services about Hines and his staff, he should have his operating lease renewed.

Yet despite the relative banality of the proceedings, the outcome will have a tremendous impact on residents of Kalispell and elsewhere in the valley who rely on taxis for transportation. And as with so many businesses and services affected by the current recession, the impact is likely to be felt disproportionately by the elderly and disabled. But they’re not the only ones. Just a few days before the Kalispell Taxi hearing, the Whitefish Taxi service stopped operating, leaving bar owners and bartenders there struggling to find ways home for patrons at the end of the night who shouldn’t drive.

Unlike larger cities where taxis are often an added convenience for someone willing to pay extra in order to avoid the bus or subway, taxi services in Montana are a means to get to and from necessities like medical appointments and grocery stores when no other transportation options exist.

This is why the Public Service Commission, which spends the majority of its time regulating energy and telecom utilities, has the authority to grant operating leases to taxi companies. By regulating the industry, according to Commissioner Ken Toole, the PSC can ensure taxi operators have insurance, are available nights and weekends, and serve areas where people can use it.

“We need taxi services in Montana as a service of last resort,” Toole, PSC vice chairman and commissioner for the district encompassing the Flathead, said. “Nobody that I’m aware of anywhere in the state is getting rich in the taxi business; they are all struggling.”

Hines validated that assertion at the Aug. 13 hearing when he talked about what it’s like to work the late-night shift, picking up rowdy drinkers at 2 a.m. who vandalize his cabs – in one instance ripping off a door – and harass drivers. The most profitable and plentiful fares are those to and from the airport. But overall, thin profit margins rarely cover the necessary repairs and upkeep for his vehicles, Hines added.

Furthermore, publicly subsidized transportation, like Eagle Transit bus service in Kalispell, offer rates and service against which private businesses like Kalispell Taxi simply can’t compete, Hines said, as he described an instance where a customer was shocked when he charged her a $40 fare after she was accustomed to paying $1 to get where she needed to go.

“I own a business; I do not give things away,” Hines told the commissioners. “How can I, as a private individual, working out of my pocket, compete against that? I can’t.”

But those same customers expected Kalispell Taxi to be available nights, weekends and other hours when Eagle Transit wasn’t running, he added.

Now, unless Hines is reissued his operating license by the PSC and starts up his service again, those customers have no options if they need somewhere to go when the bus isn’t running, and the heads of several social agencies in Kalispell fear residents they serve with no transportation face increasing difficulty and isolation.

Gay Moddrell is executive director of Special Friends Advocacy, a branch of the United Way that helps seniors and the developmentally and physically disabled. Just last weekend, Moddrell said she received a call from a man who needed a ride home from the hospital on a Saturday afternoon, and because he couldn’t find one, was forced to stay there until Monday, when the bus began running.

“I’m sure he’s not the only person who faces this kind of an issue,” Moddrell said. “Their social activities, as well as health and safety issues need to be met – they just can’t be without a taxi service.”

“With Sykes (Grocery and Market) closing, it’s going to be even more social isolation for people,” she added.

As director of Flathead County’s Agency on Aging, Jim Atkinson, also a Kalispell city councilman, oversees Eagle Transit. Acknowledging the limited hours and routes the bus service offers, Atkinson said a self-sustaining taxi service in Kalispell is desperately needed.

“If anybody can do a taxi and make money off of it, well they would be applauded by us,” he added. “We’re at a critical mass. We’ve got enough people that we need a public transportation taxi, but we don’t have enough people to support it.”

The elderly and disabled community in Whitefish face the same problems after the taxi business there closed its doors for many of the same difficulties described by Hines, but the city faces one additional drawback: an active downtown bar scene with patrons accustomed to calling a cab after knocking back a few too many.

Several bartenders and managers interviewed said they feared drunken driving would increase without any taxis available. At Casey’s, bartenders say they are seeing fewer customers, from the 8 a.m. coffee crowd to the happy hour regulars.

“I used to have regular people that would come down and rely on the taxi service, and now I don’t see those people,” Stephanie Brady said. “Either people just can’t come out because they have no way of getting home, or they drive their vehicles and people are ending up with DUI’s (driving under the influence).”

Bartenders say they’re also concerned once the weather turns cold, patrons trying to walk home after closing time could endanger themselves. In the absence of a real taxi service, a default one has sprung up on the backs of kind-hearted bartenders unwilling to force customers with no ride home to fend for themselves.

“You end up giving people rides home, three or four people a night,” Brady added. “When you get off work at two, you’re the taxi service – just out of decency, I guess.”

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