Aspen’s free taxi keeps rolling
ASPEN The postponement of a hearing means a free taxi will keep running in Aspen – for a few more months, at least.Phil Sullivan, the driver who runs the free taxi, was due for a hearing last week that likely would have shut him down. But the postponement, until later this summer, means the van with the “free rides” sign on top will keep going. Sullivan has run into trouble with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission – the agency that regulates vehicles for hire – because they say he’s actually out there to make a buck. The commission charged him with operating without a PUC license and for having inadequate insurance.
Sullivan’s case is to some degree a byproduct of a system that regulates the taxi business. It’s that system that brought hordes of Denver taxi drivers to the Capitol in March to argue for a bill that was eventually stymied in committee. “The taxi business in the state of Colorado is a monopoly,” Sullivan said. “In order to get a bona fide license in Aspen, I claim it would cost me about 1,000 hours of labor and probably $50,000 in legal fees. I tell people it would cost $100,000.”Sullivan is probably not far off. And even with an investment of that size, he would not be guaranteed a license because operating taxi companies have a say in whether a new proposal gets the nod. The recent bill before the Legislature started out as a dramatic liberalization of entry into the taxi business and ended up as a bill to study whether there should be changes to the taxi business. “It speaks to the alacrity with which the cab monopoly gets their way,” said Ray Gifford, chairman of the PUC from 1999 to 2003. “Chairmen of the PUC back to the mid-’80s have endorsed changing regs under which we regulate cabs.”Todd Gardner, president of High Mountain Taxi, takes the company line in saying that the taxi business must be highly regulated to protect the consumer. Cabs in Colorado must follow the rate structure the PUC lays out and follow other guidelines to ensure quality.
“Right now our business is dead,” Gardner said. “We have cabs out there, but they’re not doing much business at all. You deregulate it, and who’s to ensure someone is out there 365 days a year?”Though High Mountain is a monopoly in town, the city still subsidizes some of its offseason services. Even so, Gardner said that if there were another taxi service in town, High Mountain would go out of business. “There’s just not enough business to justify two cab companies, and the need is not here,” Gardner said. “Right now, I have more than 40 taxis parked in lots, not doing anything.”Gardner’s biggest complaint, however, is with Sullivan’s insurance. Without PUC approval, it’s not possible to have legal carrier insurance, though Sullivan says he pays for it anyway. Sullivan said he isn’t sure the PUC should have any jurisdiction over him and oversight of his insurance anyway, because he isn’t a vehicle for hire. “I just say I depend on the generosity of the people,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know if that’s permissible, but that’s what I do.”
He believes the PUC put off the hearing because it doesn’t really have a case. When it comes down to it, the PUC is legally certified to regulate vehicles for hire but not vehicles that give away free rides. “It’s not free,” Gardner said. “You don’t give people free rides paying $4 a gallon for gas. Sullivan is just trying to get around the rules and regulations. With this free taxi guy, something will happen, and people won’t have a claim because he doesn’t have the proper insurance.”A representative [who?] would not comment on the PUC requested that the hearing be vacated but said both parties have 10 days to respond for availability this summer. So the hearing will still happen, but until then, Sullivan still is giving out his free rides. “It’s my social life,” Sullivan said. “I’m 71 years old, and this keeps me in contact with people coming into town. It gives me contact with working locals. They’re the important people in town, the bartenders, waitresses and cooks. I know lots of them, maybe even most of them. This gives me something to do, something I’m proud of.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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