Quite a Stretch

When is a taxi not a taxi? When it's a limousine. And when is a limo legal? Not very often.

Tom Marko, part monk, part Tasmanian devil, has been cloistered for weeks in his office on Flagler Street. Subordinates say the director of Metro's Passenger Transportation Regulatory Division looks pale and sickly, yet mysteriously triumphant. At times, they report, he is heard cackling into the telephone late at night, or throwing small objects at a file cabinet. Rumors that Marko has been drawing large pentagrams on the floor of his office in green chalk simply aren't true, aides say.

In early February, county commissioners gave Marko 90 days to examine and overhaul the tangled regulations governing taxicabs, jitneys, private school buses, and other kinds of for-hire ground transportation in Dade County. This mammoth work of bureaucratic alchemy, now months overdue, will probably be finished in September, according to County Manager Joaquin Avino. The study has been delayed in part by "massive" response and comment from chauffeurs, jitney owners, taxi operators, and concerned citizens, says Marko's administrative assistant, K.T. Nystrom.

Among the most curious and nervous observers of Marko's labor pains are the legal and illegal limousine operators of Dade County. In the past five years, the number of South Florida companies providing limo service has leaped from 39 to 86. Yet many of the new limos plying the highways have a hard time doing business in Dade. The number of limousine permits - licenses issued by Marko's office and approved by county commissioners that allow for the legal operation of a limo - has remained capped at 111 for the past decade. Mark Levitt, president of the Florida Limousine Association, estimates there are 450 illegal limousines operating in Dade County. Some drivers illegally transfer one permit among several limos to elude penalties. Others routinely operate with no Dade limo license at all, risking fines of up to $500 and penalties of ten days in jail.

At the same time county commissioners have been loath to allow expansion of the limousine industry, their attitude toward taxis has been markedly different. The number of taxicab permits, which now stands at 1827, was increased by 100 or more during each of the last three consecutive years. Under the current law, both taxicabs and limos are lumped into the same regulatory category, and the number of permits for both is not allowed to exceed a ratio of one per thousand Dade residents. Since the system was instituted in the late Seventies virtually all the new permits have gone to the more powerful and vociferous taxi industry.

The absurdity and unfairness of regulating limousines as taxicabs has been recognized for years, yet nothing has changed. "Staff has been working with the Office of the County Attorney on an ordinance amendment removing regulation of limousines from that section of the code," wrote former Commissioner Claire Oesterle in March 1986. She added: "A resolution of this issue in this manner is not guaranteed." Beseeching Marko two months ago, Ambassador Limousine owner Ken Avery blamed taxi operators for the strangulation of the legal limo business. "The issues to reform the limousine industry," Avery wrote, "have been clouded and delayed through the deceptive lobbying practices of the taxi industry." Other limo entrepreneurs have come to believe in a vague conspiracy within county government to explain the continuing unavailability of limousine permits. Suspicions are not improved by the fact that 37 of the 111 existing limo permits are owned by Red Top Sedan Service, a Dade company that in the past had close business ties to Metro-Dade Mayor Steve Clark's construction company. According to an aide, the mayor continues to excuse himself from commission votes on taxi and limousine matters.

Limo operators hope Marko's study will propose one of two solutions to their problems: elimination of the need for permits by deregulating the industry, or the creation of a new permitting process for limos that is separate from the world of taxi regulation. But either solution presents new problems for limo operators who already have control of one or more permits. Once issued in a limited number, taxi or limo permits take on an economic life of their own. Dade permits can be bought and sold - and frequently are -for around $15,000 apiece. Deregulation would mean an instant loss of thousands of dollars to those operators who had invested in permits. On the other hand, increasing the number of limo permits would also hurt current permit holders, since new permits would decrease the value of the old ones.

With Marko about to present his review to Metro's Community Affairs Committee, limo operators have asked that enforcement of the existing codes be suspended until a new and more coherent policy is created. Marko's answer: no way.

"If we had the lobbying force that the taxi industry has, we would have changed these codes long ago," says Levitt, the state limo association president. "It's gotten ridiculous. My limos are legal to a certain degree, but to another degree they aren't. I'm not ashamed to say that, because I know most people in the business are in the same boat. I think the commissioners are finally aware of this. The pressure is going to be there this time around. They will have to do something. Back in the Seventies, when you saw a stretch limousine, you wondered if the governor or president was inside. Not any more.

 
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