Fare Trade

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

Zilber had started a trend. By 1991 Dade was awash in jitneys, and the county estimated it was losing nearly $400,000 a month in bus fares to the vans. Cabbies were feeling the pinch, too. A cartoon began making the rounds in cab and transit-worker circles that showed a gargantuan "Mr. Z" with the words "Jitney-Minibus Multi-Million $ Operation" on his gut. In his hand was a briefcase labeled "State Legislature," and suffocating in the folds of his voluminous belly was a small man with a briefcase that said "Dade County." But in a balloon blurb Mr. Z was whining, "You gotta open up your routes and help us out, pal -- we're really hurtin' out there!!"

Enough was enough for the cab industry and transit workers. They sent their lobbyists into battle once again. Zilber mobilized his minions, sending Steve Ross to handle the county, while Rick Sisser A an intimate of then-Senate president Gwen Margolis A worked Tallahassee. The cab/transit faction argued that the 1981 law was never meant to be applied as it was in Dade County; Zilber stood by his interpretation of the law. The first round went to Zilber, who, thanks to friends such as Margolis and Sen. Al Gutman of Miami, got a statewide bill passed that explicitly terminated Dade County's power to regulate jitneys.

The cabbies scored a symbolic victory at the county level, persuading the Metro-Dade Commission to pass a unanimous resolution urging the governor to veto the jitney bill. The cabbies became rankled, however, when unconfirmed reports filtered back to them that Commissioner Art Teele had been in Tallahassee lobbying for the jitney bill. Not that the cabbies were totally shocked by this supposed development: In 1985, Teele, along with ex-city manager Howard Gary, formed GT Transportation, Inc., which served as a Zilber subcontractor. (According to Zilber, the arrangement never went beyond the planning stages; Teele did not return calls for this story).

In June 1991, Gov. Lawton Chiles stuck a pin in Zilber's plan when he vetoed the jitney bill; the opposition forces claimed victory. But it was, at best, a Pyrrhic one. The county moved to crack down on any jitneys operating without a PMC license, but as fast as officials could impound the vehicles, the fines were paid and they were back out on the street. And Zilber was back in the legislature with another deregulation proposal. But with cabbies and transit workers continuing to squawk, and emboldened by the Miami Herald's editorial page shaming state and county officials for, as the paper put it, "kowtowing" to Zilber, the county flexed its muscles in March 1992 and revoked Zilber's PMC permit on the grounds that his contract drivers were in some cases unlicensed and unsafe. Unbowed, Zilber continued to press for deregulation in the 1993 legislative session.

"You've gotta like the guy because he brings such spirit to the process -- with Ziggy, the whole process is entertaining, but God, he kept me busy," says lobbyist Bob Levy, who, on behalf of the South Florida Taxi Association and Metro Transit Workers, fought against Zilber in Tallahassee. "His team's approach was sneaky -- he'd try to get what he wanted by dropping amendments into bills at 3:00 a.m. The last week of the session, four or five of us would have to stand up on the fourth floor [of the state capitol building] and pay attention to every new item."

In the end, Zilber decided simply to walk away from the jitney business. "If I'd been twenty years younger I'd have gone back to Tallahassee and gotten a bill passed," he sighs. "But it just wasn't worth it any more."

Leave it to Mother Nature to come to Zilber's aid. In the summer of 1992, Zilber was reeling. With the jitney bill on the ropes and his PMC license revoked, another of his companies, Comprehensive Paratransit Services (CPS), came under fire for its stewardship of the county's elderly and disabled transportation contract. In the mid-Seventies, when the federally supported county contract was first offered, Zilber was one of only two bidders who sought to snag it. He won the contract and had held it ever since. But over the years complaints about CPS -- whose job it was to provide low-cost transportation to the handicapped and elderly -- piled up at the Metro-Dade Transit Agency. So many complaints, in fact, that then-county commissioner Charles Dusseau made noises about bidding out the contract for the first time in fifteen years.

And then complete and utter destruction turned into Zilber's salvation. On August 23, 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated southern Dade County, throwing everything, notably transportation, into disarray. As is the case when any major disaster strikes, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) flew down to Miami to coordinate relief operations. Zilber seized yet another opportunity and pitched to beleaguered federal officials a plan to contract his fleet of minibuses, operating with emergency licenses, to provide a temporary system for the ravaged area. They came to terms, with approximately twenty jitney companies in on the action -- all working for Zilber, who brokered the deal.

But despite the business boon during the aftermath of the hurricane, Zilber's fortunes again waned. After commission elections in the fall of 1992, incoming freshman Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla decided to review CPS's service record. What struck him most was the plethora of complaints.

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