Fare play: Yellow Cab angles for exclusive rights to Amtrak passengers

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Mark Brown’s Yellow Cab of Charlottesville now has an agreement with the operators of the Amtrak parking lot that bars other taxi companies from cruising for fares at the train station. Photo: Eli Williams. Mark Brown’s Yellow Cab of Charlottesville now has an agreement with the operators of the Amtrak parking lot that bars other taxi companies from cruising for fares at the train station. Photo: Eli Williams.

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.

  • Marion Kind

    This is fine and great, especially for the Yellow drivers, to have all the competition off of the streets. But then with nowhere left for drivers to work but Yellow, Brown can double his already exorbitant lease rates and there won’t a thing to be done about it. To hell with the competitive spirit of the open market. Squeeze it off and corner it and make everybody shop at the company store.

  • Jertee

    People are hating because they didn’t think to do it first. It’s legal, it’s good business. You have a progressive thinker vs people who want to keep cabs as they were in the 20th century. Do we still live in a capitalist society? Not to mention, how many people does Mr. McCoy (and all the other cab companies) employ? How many people does Mr. Brown employ? Hmmmm, food for thought

    • Marion Kind

      Brown employs almost no one, at least not at Yellow cab. He takes $500+ a week from drivers who don’t own their own cars. He pays out nothing to any drivers. If the drivers were his employees, he would obligated to provide health insurance for all of them. What’s he’s doing is not capitalistic, it’s the reason we have antitrust laws. He apparently took money he saved from part time jobs in college (one would assume he came by it honestly) and bought some very expensive real estate and a couple of cab companies. Now, with his small-scale conglomerate, he’s trying to run the smaller competitors out of the market by making back door deals with people who control access points to public transportation centers. Oh, and no matter how sycophantic you get there, Jertee, they’re never gonna let you in the big house.

      • James Collier Jr.

        Spoken like a true veteran, Marion… Nice to know someone in this town sees this for what it is…

    • James Collier Jr.

      Jertee – Have you ever driven a taxi? And if so, how much experience do you have? I’d be willing to bet, NO, and NO. To address your “food for thought” remark, here’s some for YOU. I’ve been in the business THIRTEEN years, had two years of business management and accounting courses, and *I* don’t have it all figured out. So, do you have ANY experience in the business whatsoever?

  • James Collier Jr.

    Speaking as a a former veteran independent owner/operator of thirteen years experience, who was FORCED OUT OF BUSINESS by these shenanigans, here is the honest TRUTH about this situation.

    Mr. Brown is ripping off drivers by locking them into paying better than $60,000 over 3 years for a $26,000 car that will be worth about $2,000 when it is paid for, and likely will need major repairs that cost much more than the car is worth at that point. All while making the driver work for the same rates charged EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO. I leased from this company over ’03-’04, but left both times due to similarly asinine thinking on the part of the former owner. Most drivers are sleeping in the car, working 18-hour shifts just to pay lease fees to a company that keeps them on a hamster wheel. I worked double-shifts seven days a week for two months to make enough money to buy a $1400 car and go back out on my own.

    There is a REASON I chose to operate my own for eleven of the thirteen years I was in business. There is also a REASON that hybrids have not been more widely utilized in the industry – they do not save any money, nor do they hold up. They simply are not designed to carry 4-6 passengers, or the loads of groceries, luggage, laundry that are common from day to day.

    Coincidentally, an associate of Mr. Brown’s, a Will Van derLinde, I believe, actually took a ride in my taxi some months ago, and invited me to come check out their new setup. However, when I called the office to look into it and perhaps lease a vehicle from one of their owner/operators within the company, the EXTREMELY rude person who returned my call, condescendingly informed me (in so many words) that Yellow Cab is apparently a “members-only” club, and that I was, in fact, NOT welcome. When one of Mr. Brown’s lackies attempted to recruit me

    I might add that Mr. Brown’s monopolistic approach to the industry has been assisted by Collier’s Towing, (no relation) one of whose drivers backed up to my vehicle much more forcefully than necessary, throwing me into my steering wheel – and they NEVER bothered to check the vehicle for occupancy. That ALONE was against state law, but to add insult to injury, the officer who made the final decision at the scene also forced me to pay a “drop fee” to the idiot tow operator, AFTER the operator hooked to my vehicle illegally and with excessive force, not even giving me a chance to explain.

    I have an eyewitness, photographs, and video to prove this, as well as a receipt for the fee I was charged. You can bet that when I need a tow from now on, I will call a wrecker from RICHMOND before I will use Collier’s. As far as I’m concerned, they owe me $25 for a fee that should never have been charged. I have made complaints to the city and the ACLU that have gone unanswered, as well as been snubbed by CAV-19 and NBC29 News, who refused to air the story, even though NBC-29 sent a reporter to the scene when I initially called police.

    But this is not the only problem that taxi drivers face in Charlottesville. Years ago, Charlottesville got the bright idea to make improvements” in the Corner and other areas. These “improvements” obliterated standby parking for taxi cabs to allow ease of customer access – in favor of bike lanes and wider sidewalks for people who STILL walk in the roadway, regardless. The problem? Ordinance states we are not allowed to load in the street, and standby parking is limited, if not nonexistent in most areas. Because of THIS, we have been subject to constant police harassment, because of an outdated ordinance for which there is no way to comply, (entrapment anyone?) and an apparent willingness to blame taxi drivers because of a drunk driver rear-ending one that was stopped to load. And yes, I WAS told EXACTLY that, by a sworn officer who stopped me for loading in the street when there was no safe place to park or stop.

    It is now clear to me that The City of Charlottesville has become completely anti-small-business, and passengers seem content to let this pass in the name of larger companies saving them money. Rates vary among different companies, and they generally do not vary greatly, but I have seen people who would wait an hour in the cold at the airport to save $10 on a ten mile trip, or 45 minutes to save four dollars on a ride in-town, and that is the HEIGHTS of stupidity. In my opinion, EVERYONE in Charlottesville needs to wake up, and join the 21st century. Yellow Cab’s 40-cent-per-one-sixth-mile charge dates back to *1995*, some EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, and expenses have increased an average of 200-300% since then. Neither Mr. Brown, nor most passengers, know or care whether the driver makes a living.

    In light of Charlottesville’s apparent willingness to allow big business to crush small ones, and harass the working man for trying to make a meager living, I am currently studying for my Class A CDL, and when I complete my training, I don’t plan to EVER come back to Charlottesville. Nor would I ever want to attempt to run any other kind of business in Charlottesville – or Albemarle County for that matter, after seeing their constant harassment of Tom Slonaker.

    All I have to say to taxi patrons in Charlottesville, is to enjoy your wait times of 45-90 minutes on a busy night, just to be crammed into a compact hybrid, because you have done it to yourselves by allowing this travesty to happen. And I know that is what it is coming to, because over the last few months in the taxi business, I heard nothing but complaints about Yellow Cab’s service. But if this practice is allowed to stand, patrons will eventually have no choice BUT to call Yellow Cab. Of course, that is what Mr. Brown WANTS, but service will certainly suffer when 100+ customers call a company that has perhaps 50 vehicles, only 20-30 of which are on the road at any given time. The choice is yours, but ask yourself this question – Do you REALLY feel safe waiting an hour for a taxi cab when you called at 2:15 in the morning? I’ve seen enough to know that you shouldn’t.

    So don’t complain when it crashes down, people. You’ve done it to yourselves, ENJOY!

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