Mountain Character: Phil Sullivan, the original Downtowner
Cabbie Phil Sullivan will fiercely admit he’s incensed over what he perceives as an injustice in Aspen’s transportation arena.
“I don’t get free parking, electricity or anything,” Sullivan told members of Aspen City Council at their Sept. 12 meeting. “I’m prepared to bend over.”
Sullivan, 80, believes he has been wronged by the government, in particular the city of Aspen and the state’s Public Utilities Commission. He’s gone to the local newspapers and chided city authorities about the Downtowner, a free taxi service with restricted service boundaries within the commercial core and select residential areas.
The way Sullivan sees it, the city-funded Downtowner service is doing exactly what resulted in him being put in jail twice for violating court orders that prohibited him from operating a free taxi service because he didn’t have a state license.
Sullivan spent eight days in the Pitkin County Jail in March 2010 after then-Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols found him in contempt of court. He was back in jail to serve nine days in late January and early February of 2012. Both jail sentences were for 15 days, but he was released early twice for good behavior.
The sentences came after Sullivan was busted by undercover Public Utilities Commission officers who took rides with him and said he asked for their tips. Other cabbies complained to the commission as well, accusing him of violating state rules they were required to follow.
Sullivan still gives free rides — he now has a three-vehicle fleet and two drivers — through Free Rides for People Who Need Them Inc. The nonprofit, which was hatched through a deal with the court and crafted by Sullivan’s attorney, Rob Couhig of New Orleans, allowed him to operate a free and legal cab business.
“Pitkin County is one of the largest counties in the world for nonprofits,” Sullivan said in a recent interview. “And I just do what my conscience will let me.”
High Mountain Taxi’s Tom Coggins recently said the Downtowner doesn’t affect their business, and it shouldn’t impact Sullivan’s, either.
“If he’s concerned about people using the Dowtowner instead of him, then put an ad in the paper,” he said. “He’s offering a free service based on donations, so get the word out that ‘I’m the free-taxi guy.’”
To Sullivan, however, the city-funded Downtowner, a Florida-based service, smacks of hypocrisy.
For one, how could the city pay for a free transport service, whose drivers aren’t paid and rely on tips, the very concept that landed him in jail? And why didn’t the city contact Sullivan when it was considering a free taxi-style service?
Mitch Osur, who runs the city’s Parking Department, said a request for proposals was placed on the city’s website in March before it enlisted the Downtowner service. The request for proposals also said all vehicles must be 100 percent electric. Sullivan’s vehicles are gas-powered.
The city paid $89,250 for the three-month pilot period that ran from June to August. The City Council also agreed to extend the service through the upcoming ski season.
From June to Aug. 28, the Downtowner accounted for 4,996 rides ferrying 11,635 passengers, according to a report from Osur.
The Downtowner service isn’t required to have a Public Utilities Commission license like Sullivan was before he started the nonprofit. That’s because it is a municipal service, according to City Attorney Jim True, who previously had prosecuted Sullivan for driving without a business license.
When Sullivan scolded the council members at their Sept. 12 meeting, Councilman Adam Frisch accused him of having “tremendous amounts of audacity” to claim the Downtowner was unfairly competing with him.
“You have smartly and very cunningly figured out how to walk the fine line,” Frisch said of the nonprofit exemption from Public Utilities Commission rules. Frisch added that he hears complaints from people who claim Sullivan and his drivers ask for gratuity before they transport passengers.
Sullivan came to Aspen in 1968 and started the Mellow Yellow cab company in the mid-1970s. He sold the 100-vehicle, 20-bus fleet in 1995, living a life of retirement in which he traveled and resided in Acapulco, Mexico, for a few years. He lost much of his nest egg on the stock market, and started driving again in 2003 for High Mountain Taxi.
He was there for three or four years before he left on inimical terms to roll out his free cab service.
“I knew the clientele, and I knew the people coming in as guests all had money to leave good gratuities,” he said. “And I was aware of the companionship and the camaraderie of locals who were service workers. They were generous to a fault.”
But he said he didn’t ask for money.
“I will admit that I enticed people to come to me,” he said of this free taxi service’s earlier days, when he drove a white Kia mini-van. “But I never asked anybody for money. Nobody.”
Sullivan said he has ridden the Downtowner and actually enjoyed the service. It’s the city, not the Downtowner, that has him upset, not only because he served jail time for his free cab rides but also because taxpayers are supporting a service that is used, in part, by Aspen’s wealthy set.
“The free shuttle operates exclusively in the core area of Aspen,” he recently posted on his Facebook page. “The (residents) and second-home owners of this exclusive core area live in or rent multimillion-dollar homes and have multimillion-dollar yearly incomes. It seems only right that the workers in Pitkin County chip in a little tax money to help these poor people out.”
Sullivan said he doesn’t drive as much as once did, but he still needs the money to help support his two grandchildren and wife, Mona Lisa Wagner.
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.