Fare Trade

Ziggy Zilber built a lean, mean, ground-transportation empire, making money and enemies, and working the politicians like a well-oiled machine

But things began to change. While Zilber attended an ITLDA meeting in Boston shortly after the airport brouhaha, he was ousted from the presidency of the Yellow Cab back in Miami, largely owing to the efforts of fellow Yellow co-op participant Eisenberg. "I found it kind of funny," sniffs Zilber today. He could afford to find it funny, because while his cabs could no longer use the Yellow dispatch service, Zilber still held his numerous permits. And he simply turned around and repainted his Yellow cabs in the orange and white colors of his Hurricane Taxi service, sending them out on the streets of Miami, where they received orders from Hurricane's dispatchers.

However, he still wanted to expand his operations, and he hatched a hell of a scheme to do so. In 1981 the state law that severely curtailed the counties' authority to regulate taxis -- the one Zilber had helped to get passed six years earlier -- was up for review. Unless the legislature re-endorsed the law, it would die. This time around, he wanted it to perish. In a stark reversal of his previous position, he began lobbying the county to take control of cab regulation. He also began selling off his City of Miami permits. Zilber's gambit was simple: First, sell the Miami permits while they were hot. Next, convince the county to take over cab regulation, which would result in the county setting a cap on the number of permits and, in turn, raise their value; then sell the county permits high; and in a final master stroke, use political clout to get the county to reverse itself and deregulate. The latter move, he figured, would result in the devaluation of permits, which Zilber could then accrue in massive numbers.

In theory it was a brilliant plan. And it nearly worked. In early 1981, after the majority of his Miami permits had been sold at close to $20,000 each, Zilber managed to convince enough of his colleagues and commissioners of the benefits of county regulation; then he persuaded state legislators not to renew the 1975 law. And in late 1981 he began selling the county permits at a handsome profit. Taking a two-pronged approach for the next step of his plan, he not only started lobbying the county and state for deregulation, but also filed suit against the county, alleging it had no business regulating cabs.

The cab industry was stunned. It was as if someone had poured a pound of sugar in its gas tank. "There was a time when Ziggy was, essentially, a good man who drove a cab," recalls one of his competitors. "And over the years he had always characterized everything he did as something that was good for the industry. Maybe a few people will lose out, he'd say, but overall it'll be better. But this move was designed to benefit one person, and only one person: Ziggy. He conned us. His own industry. Fucked us."

The cabbies responded in force, sending in their own lobbyists to fight Zilber on the statewide legislative front, while the county, feeling taken advantage of, vigorously countered Zilber in the courtroom. When the dust ultimately settled, the cabbies and the county had won. Says Zilber today of the whole affair: "I made a bad business judgment."

On its face, Zilber's comment seems strangely understated. He was, after all, now completely bereft of taxi permits, which essentially eliminated him as a player in the industry. But although he didn't have as much power, he had a pile of money from his permit sales. So like any good businessman, he looked around for another investment, eventually finding it in Denver, which had a small but deregulated cab industry. Within a few years, 300 Zilber-owned cabs were cruising the streets of the Mile-High City.

As some in the local industry saw it, Zilber was more or less neutralized. While his Metro Transportation company was still raking in money as a dispatch service, his operation, though technologically advanced, still couldn't match the one at Yellow. But many others weren't inclined to write him off. Although he'd been defeated, it was hard to believe that a rapacious operator such as Zilber would pack it in here. He didn't. In 1986, five years after his ambitious regulation-deregulation gambit failed, Zilber rose from the ashes. His phoenix: jitneys.

In 1981 the state legislature had passed a law that made it illegal for counties to regulate "intercity" bus travel. Practically speaking, the law was designed to keep counties from overseeing bus routes between, say, Miami and Tampa. Read literally, however, the law offered other possibilities. Here's how Zilber read it: There were more than 25 incorporated cities in Dade County; cabs can be too expensive; the bus can take too long; might there be a third option? As it happened, he had a van-only passenger motor carrier (PMC) permit that allowed him to put as many minibuses, or jitneys, on the road as he wanted, just as long as they stuck to county-approved routes.

In theory, jitneys exist to service areas that are neglected -- or infrequently visited -- by other forms of transportation. But thanks to the vague wording of the 1981 law, Zilber concluded that the county really had no power to say where or how jitneys could operate. So Ziggy made the following deal with potential jitney drivers: Use your own vehicle, keep the fares, and pay me a fee for the privilege of operating under the Zilber-owned Metro Minibus flag. What happened next harked back to Zilber's old Hurricane cab-driving days at the Seaquarium: According to critics, Metro Minibuses were cherry-picking bus passengers and cab fares off the streets.

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