Fare Trade

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

"Absolutely, there were complaints," admits Zilber. "We moved 2000 people a day and got about 40 or 50 complaints. So we had 1950 people each day who had no problems. It was a vocal two percent."

Others, however, differ with this characterization. According to a county commission staffer who requested anonymity, the complaints about CPS -- abusive or inept drivers, blind and paralyzed people having to wait for hours on street corners -- were myriad. "When de la Portilla came in, there were literally boxes of complaints," the staffer says. "It's not that they ran a horrible service. I remember after the hurricane they worked hard to make sure their Special Transportation Service [STS] clients were taken care of. But there were some real problems."

Ultimately, de la Portilla prevailed. In 1994, after seventeen years, CPS lost the STS contract to rival Comsis when it was put out to bid, largely owing to the efforts of the young commissioner.

Although that loss had an impact, Zilber's business interests are hardly on the skids. From the fourth-floor offices of a building east of the airport, attorney Martin Zilber has been overseeing the evolution and diversification of Metro Transportation Services. Right now Martin's highest priority is the development of HealthTrans, a medical transportation company.

Among industry and government types, opinion on the younger Zilber is split: While some consider him more polished than his father, others characterize him as more ruthless. It's not a charge Martin completely disagrees with. "He's by far too nice, too caring, too generous," says Martin of his father. "If someone calls and says they're starting a transportation company and asks him for advice, he'll give it. Free. Me, I'd say, I'll help you, but for a consulting fee -- or you make us partners."

Standing in the middle of a low-lighted room occupied by about two dozen sophisticated color computers and their earpiece-wearing operators, the younger Zilber explains that for him and his father, taxis and jitneys aren't the future: Medical transport is. "We're talking to hospitals, HMOs, and individual doctor's practices about providing not only nonemergency transportation, but also helping them with routing, billing, marketing A merging technology with transportation," Martin explains. So far, he adds, deals have been stitched up in Denver, Kansas City, Tampa, and Connecticut; he hints that similar contracts are in the works for Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and Houston.

But, he continues, this diversification doesn't mean the Zilbers are going to stop doing business in Dade. "Of course, any time the [Zilber] name is attached to anything, everyone else thinks its part of a plot," he sighs.

To wit: At that December 5 Metro-Dade Commission meeting -- the meeting in which the "federal case" came up -- item 7 (T) of the agenda dealt with the granting of a PMC license to the Zilber-owned Corporate Car USA. Corporate Car uses unmarked sedans to transport customers who pay an advance fee for something more upscale than a taxi. The Zilbers say they'd also like to have vans and minibuses available for their corporate clients. But according to lobbyist Bob Levy -- whose clients include Les Eisenberg, Diego Feliciano, and Al Edden, the respective heads of Yellow Cab, Super Yellow Cab, and the county's Transit Workers Union -- this new Zilber move is mere subterfuge. "I see this as a backdoor attempt to secure the same PMC they were denied overwhelmingly," Levy informed Edden in a recent memo. Also in the memo, Levy pointed out that on Corporate Car's PMC application to Metro-Dade's Consumer Services Department, the company indicates its service will be based on "demand response."

"There is no definition of 'demand response,'" wrote Levy, "and as far as we can tell a street hail is a 'demand response.' We must stop this backdoor attempt to secure what they have rightfully been denied."

According to Ziggy Zilber, Levy and his clients are delusional: "Everything I do is a way of sneaking something in, my competitors think. This is the luxury sedan business. I don't know what demand response is. If you say we need a car in an hour, we'll do it. And we have the opportunity to do van work. Let's say you have nine corporate types in town who want to go to a ball game. We'd like to be able to let them hire a van. So we're applying for a permit. Believe me, when I'm ready to go into the jitney business again, they'll know it."

But the opposition isn't buying it. "Part of what's helped Ziggy become so successful is how he disarms people," notes a competitor. "He's brutally honest A to a point. He'll be so up-front with you at first, you're thrown off by how frank he is. And then it gets to the point where he'll tell you he's going to pull the rug out from under you, and you don't even feel it. That's what he's doing here."

The county commission, however, didn't see it that way. In spite of an hour's worth of articulate, vociferous protest from transportation company owners and workers, the commission voted 11-0 to grant Corporate Car USA its PMC license on December 20. "He won," allows a competitor. "Even today he still won. Amazing. He can be anything he wants.

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