By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Pressure is coming from all sides for the Public Utilities Commission to allow a group of taxi drivers to open a new cab service in metro Denver.
The issue has crossed the political aisle, with both Republicans and Democrats issuing letters encouraging the PUC to allow Mile High Cab, a group of about 150 local cab drivers, to open a new cab service in the area.
A proposal by Mile High Cab to open a new company was rejected by an administrative-law judge last month. The judge ruled that the new company would damage existing local cab companies. An attorney for the group is asking the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to overturn the judge’s ruling.
High-profile unions and politicians have been writing to the PUC, asking it to review the ruling.
State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, co-sponsored legislation in 2008, House Bill 1227, that eased the application process for taxi cab companies with the intent of “opening the door for greater competition,” he said. Penry is frustrated, arguing that Judge Paul Gomez ruled against the intent of his legislation.
“Our intent with the legislation was to increase competition for the benefit of consumers, allowing greater choice and more efficient taxi cab service in the metro area,” Penry wrote this month to Public Utilities Commission commissioners. “We viewed increased competition as beneficial to the public interest, not detrimental to it, as Judge Gomez ruled. We intended for more taxi cab companies to be approved to operate in the metro area to provide this competition, so long as they could prove they were operationally and financially fit to provide taxi services.”
Mile High Cab believes the public is being served a disadvantage by blocking its emergence into the market because the company aims to charge 25 cents less per mile, as well as no extra charges for additional passengers or bags. The Mile High Cab rate would be $2 per mile, instead of the usual $2.25 per mile. The break equates to about an 11-percent savings, says the group of taxi drivers.
Mile High Cab also plans on offering its drivers a cheaper lease rate of about $250 a week, which attorney Tom Russell, who is representing the group of cab drivers, says would allow the drivers to make a good living without having to work a dangerous number of hours. He points to Union Taxi, which was allowed to open in 2009 as a cooperative. Union Taxi offers lower lease rates, which has allowed its drivers to spend more time with their children, go to church, continue their education, and get additional sleep, said Russell.
In his ruling, Judge Gomez stated that the issue is not about “free market,” but about preserving the current market as a whole for consumers.
“The Commission is bound by the doctrine of regulated competition and the required findings which that entails,” writes Gomez. “Open or nearly open entry is not consistent with the Commission’s statutory charge and its regulatory responsibilities.”
Gomez goes on to state that the intent of HB 1227 was not to open the market to all new competition.
“It does not appear that it was the intent of the legislature under HB 08-1227 that the Commission merely ‘rubber stamp’ all corners into the taxi market and let market forces dictate the outcome,” wrote Gomez. “If this was indeed the legislative intent, it then is not plausible that it would have kept the doctrine of regulated competition as the standard under which the Commission is to determine ‘public need’ and ‘public interest.’”
Mile High Cab has filed an appeal and the PUC is expected to consider the request at a future meeting, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 6, according to Chris Lines, spokesman for the Department of Regulatory Agencies.
Congressman Ed Perlmutter, D-Lakewood, also released a letter this month, asking that the PUC seriously consider overturning the judge’s ruling.
“The PUC is charged to ensure taxi service exists in the region. Therefore, I believe before denying the petition, evidence should first be presented showing an instance in which a city of comparable size, population density and transportation needs as those of Denver resulted in the complete elimination of the market,” wrote Perlmutter. “If it cannot, I believe lower rates to consumers and 160 new jobs are more important.”
Perlmutter’s Republican challenger in the 7th Congressional District, Ryan Frazier, also issued a letter asking that the PUC reconsider the judge’s ruling. Frazier is also an at-large member of the Aurora City Council.
“I believe that the decision is erroneous and should be reversed by the full Public Utilities Commission,” wrote Frazier. “It is in the best interest of the public that you approve this application. Judge Gomez’s own decision states that this group has the management capability and financial resources to do the job. Competition is, by definition, good and this application should be approved.”
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents about 1,900 Regional Transportation District transit workers, also spoke of the need for competition.
“Increased competition would benefit the community,” wrote Holman Carter, president of the ATU Local 1001. “It is in the best interest of the entire community for the PUC to allow Mile High Cab to operate in the Denver Metro area.”