When Main Street Arena owner Mark Brown shook up the local taxi industry by buying up two aging cab fleets and installing card swipe machines and GPS trackers in his cars, he didn’t win many fans among the dozens of independent cab companies in the city, who complained he came swinging into a business he knew little about. And now that Brown’s Yellow Cab of Charlottesville has an exclusive right to cruise for fares at the local Amtrak station, he and his company have become the target of even more cabbie rancor—and some scrutiny from the city.
The shift came in late spring, according to Kennan McCoy, who launched McCoy’s Taxi last year. Non-Yellow drivers who pulled up to the station off West Main Street were told they couldn’t linger for fares, only drop off or pick up customers who called them for rides. Those who pushed back were threatened with lawsuits, McCoy said, and soon, private security guards were making regular appearances.
McCoy said the situation is unfair, and makes the city look bad. “You can’t brag about being one of the best cities to live in when you’re crushing entrepreneurship and minority businesses, and taking this position of ‘one man runs the show,’” he said. “It’s sickening to me.”
Amtrak officials at the station said they had no control over taxi access, and declined to comment. Developer and architect Gabe Silverman, who owns the property along with his business partner, Allan Cadgene, confirmed that there was an agreement in place, but said the operation of the parking lot was entirely in the hands of the lot manager, who also refused to comment on the taxi agreement.
Brown, who bought and merged Yellow Cab of Charlottesville and Anytime Taxi last year, explained the push for the exclusive relationship came from lot managers unhappy with the conduct of the cabbies who crowded the station every evening, waiting for the Northeast Regional train to pull in and disgorge passengers. He didn’t offer much detail on the kind of behavior that had drawn the concern of the lot operator, but said there had been reports of drivers charging unwitting customers exorbitant fares.
“As a result of the problems that they were having with safety, security, and customer service, they asked us to help them,” Brown said.
City Councilor Dede Smith said she was disturbed when she heard about the restricted access to a longstanding fare source.
“It sort of flies in the face of our effort to promote entrepreneurship,” she said. She believes the city should think twice about giving its blessing to an exclusive relationship between a property owner and a single company. What’s happening at the train station looks a little too much like a monopoly, she said.
“When you’ve got one company completely controlling this captive audience coming off the train, it seems fraught with potential pricing issues,” she said.
But Deputy City Attorney Richard Harris said that despite the fact that the city retains a right-of-way through the parking lot, the agreement between Piedmont and Yellow Cab is legally sound.
“There’s a contract there between two private entities,” Harris said, and he underscored that it doesn’t bar other cabs from the property. Any vehicle, taxi or otherwise, can still get to the train station via the one-way loop of the parking lot, which has a public access easement on it, he said. Still, the right to public access doesn’t equate to a right for the city to dictate business practices on the site, Harris said.
“It’s a permissive right, not a restrictive right,” he said.
The explanation doesn’t satisfy many of the independent taxi drivers in town. McCoy said some are quietly getting around the new rules by arriving right as trains pull up and whisking away cab-seeking customers without lingering, or by giving the security guards monitoring the pickup zone during heavy traffic times fake passenger names.
McCoy said he’s taking a bolder approach, and plans to go straight to the property owners to ask that special access be granted to other companies, too. If that doesn’t work, he’ll keep “rattling cages,” he said.
Former Charlottesville Vice Mayor Meredith Richards, chair of the passenger rail advocacy group CvilleRail, said she shares some of the drivers’ concerns. “From an economic point of view, for the small businesspeople in town, it’s a shame,” she said.
But it may also be part of a trend. Richards pointed out that the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport recently put out a request for proposals for an exclusive deal with a taxi company.
Richards said the fact that two big transportation hubs have taken steps to limit cab access means it might be time for more oversight by local government, both to ensure fair access and to put regulations in place for drivers.
“We have so many independent cab companies now”—about 60, she estimates—“that maybe it’s time for the city and county to come together and form a taxi commission and start licensing locally,” she said.