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Illegal taxis drive under city's radar
Jose Luis Diaz, owner of Fiesta Cab Co. in Gainesville, says he has lost customers to the illegal taxicab drivers that operate in the city. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Jose Luis Diaz, owner of Fiesta Cab Company in Gainesville, says he does everything by the book. But now, he says his business is suffering because others don’t.

When Diaz applied to become a taxicab driver nine years ago, he had to wait two years before he could get a permit in the city.

His first permit allowed him to operate two cabs. Today, Diaz is one of eight companies with a permit to drive taxicabs in Gainesville. His business has 31 green-and-white cars on the road bearing the Fiesta Cab Company logo.

So when, eight months ago, Diaz started noticing the same van at some of his regular stops — poultry plants — picking up some of his old customers, he was understandably frustrated.

“These people don’t have permission,” Diaz said. “They don’t have to wait (for a permit).”

They are illegal cab drivers, Diaz said, who don’t have to go through the rigorous inspections that permitted cab drivers are subjected to or pay the annual permit fees Diaz does. Because of this, they are free to charge what they want and haul as many customers as they want.

Some of the illegal drivers Diaz sees once worked for licensed companies, he said. When they started their own unlicensed business, they took their customers with them — and some of Diaz’s customers.

In recent months, Diaz said he has lost customers to the illegal taxicab drivers that operate in Gainesville, cutting into his business by approximately 30 percent.

Catching illegal cab drivers in the act can be difficult, City Marshal Debbie Jones said, since many operate under the radar in regular cars. Unpermitted cab operations have been in the city since Jones started working for the City Marshal’s office almost nine years ago.

When Jones does catch drivers operating cabs illegally, the fine can range from $500 to $1,000. The City Marshal’s office has cited two illegal cab operations twice this year, Jones said.

“It’s not just something that jumps out at you ...” Jones said. “Not everybody rides around with a big sticker on their car that says, ‘taxi.’”

But Diaz can see them. He’s memorized the license plates of some of the vehicles that have begun to pick up his old customers.

Gainesville code requires any taxicab driver who picks up people in the city limits to have a permit. The permits require drivers to submit to criminal background checks, require the companies to undergo a twice-yearly vehicle inspection by the City Marshal’s office and keep a certain amount of liability insurance on all the vehicles.

Drivers who have a history of more than five moving traffic violations in the last five years or have been charged for driving under the influence in the last 10 years will be denied a permit.

Jones said the 18 pages of ordinances that regulate cab drivers in the city guarantees a level of safety for customers that cab drivers without permits cannot.

“It’d be a large issue of safety for that passenger,” Jones said. “When you’re riding with someone, you have no idea if they’re insured or if you’re riding with a deviant criminal. You just don’t know who and what you’re getting into. You just don’t know. And of course, nothing is 100 percent but at least an extreme effort has been made when you have a regulated industry.”

But getting a permit to drive a taxi in the city also can be difficult. The city’s taxicab ordinance, passed in 1998, only allows for one vehicle per 1,000 residents in the county. The population numbers are to be based on the most current census information available from the U.S. Census Bureau, which now are nine years old.

Today, there are 230 permitted cab drivers in Gainesville and no room for new cab companies under the ordinance.

In Jones’ eight years at the City Marshal’s office, only three new companies have been granted taxicab permits in Gainesville; the last new company was permitted in 2004, she said. Two or three people are on a waiting list to start a taxicab business at any given time, Jones said.

“The 2010 census is just right around the corner, so that may put an opportunity for more cabs. But right now we’ve got 169 cabs on the road,” Jones said.

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