AFTER FOUR YEARS of effort, a driver-run taxi co-op won a big victory last week after Portland City Council approved the taxi permits they need to get started. This is huge. The city hasn't added new permits since 1998.
But the new company, Union Cab—whose cause has been rammed through by Mayor Sam Adams and a local union—might still face opposition from another quarter: the Port of Portland.
Airport fares are huge moneymakers for cab companies and their drivers, and cabbies sometimes live and die by how many they can get. And it's the Port of Portland that decides how many taxis are allowed at the airport. But unfortunately for Union Cab, the port official with the power to approve these fares isn't looking kindly on its cause.
Echoing similar concerns raised by city cabbies fighting both the new co-op and additional plans to add dozens of other cabs, the airport's landside operations manager, Michael Huggins, has gone on record arguing the city doesn't need any more taxis. But whether he's speaking for the whole port—or just his department—is another matter.
At the November 7 city council meeting, Huggins, who regulates taxis at PDX, testified that any increase in Portland's taxi permits would hurt the city's roughly 900 drivers. "Fundamentally I believe that increasing taxi permits will not achieve the City of Portland's stated objectives of improving driver [working] conditions."
Reading from a prepared statement, Huggins went on to say that Portland doesn't need the new permits because its public transit is among the nation's best.
But signs that Huggins might be going it alone came early. At the October 10 meeting of the city's Private for Hire Transportation Board, which oversees taxi permits, one of Huggins' subordinates read a similar statement about Portland's exceptional transportation system. Curiously, she still cast her vote for Union Cab—but as a stand-in for Huggins, her vote wasn't binding. In an even stranger twist, at the recent council meeting, Adams accused Huggins of going rogue. Huggins was forced to admit he was speaking for his department and not the Port of Portland's board.
Adams: "So what you just read, you were representing yourself as a member of the Port of Portland. Does what you were reading represent the position of the Port of Portland board?"
Huggins: "It's the position of the Port of Portland Operations Department and has been reviewed by our department, but not the board."
Furious, Adams proceeded to cross-examine Huggins about his claim that Portland's transit system was unique. Once he had thoroughly browbeaten the port official, the mayor curtly ended the conversation, saying, "Thank you, that's all."
Huggins declined to comment on the exchange, but defended his position saying, "I represent ground transportation at the airport. I can speak to the issue of taxis at the airport and I can speak to issues with the city."
Adams told the Mercury he wanted to make it clear that Huggins wasn't speaking for the Port of Portland Board. "His statements that our airport transit options are different or more plentiful than other cities, that's just not true," says Adams.
The spat between Adams and Huggins is part of a larger discussion between the city and the port over airport taxi fares. The port has regulated the number of taxis at the airport since the 1990s. This has led to the current—and some claim inefficient—system that lets any driver drop off passengers, but limits pickups only to drivers who have the port's approval.
Union Cab Chairman Kedir Wako declined to comment on Huggins' statements about new permits, or whether he thought the port would ultimately approve Union Cab for airport pickups. But Wako did say that many of the co-op's members, currently working for other Portland taxi companies, already pick up passengers at the airport. "I think we have a good case," Wako says. "Once we get the business set up, we plan on reapplying for [the airport permits]."
Next month, the city's Private for Hire Transportation Board will vote on whether to add an additional 28 taxi permits for three existing companies. Wako says he hopes to have the co-op's taxis on the streets by February, with or without the airport permits.