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Just past last call on Saturday night, three women in short black dresses vie for a cab at the neon corner of Columbus and Broadway. When the light changes, 25 feet of limousine creeps into the bus zone, and the tinted window cracks. The driver's offer -- 10 bucks for 10 blocks -- sounds fair, and the trio ducks into the back. A cab would have cost half that, were one available.
Such was the scene two weeks ago, but it's one that repeats every weekend, especially in North Beach, SOMA, and Fisherman's Wharf. It's also illegal.
By California law, all limos must prearrange each trip and carry a waybill detailing pickup and destination points. But any cab driver knows that not all of the approximately 200 licensed limos in S.F. play by the rules. Not only do the limos siphon off approximately 10 percent of cab business, they say, but stretch drivers rip off passengers themselves.
"These guys are dangerous. I wouldn't ride half a block, especially as a woman," says 15-year cabby Mary McGuire, who once picked up a passenger who'd had a gun turned on him by a limo driver.
Even the legitimate limo companies complain that the gypsy limos hurt their business. "They've been around since time beginning," says Airport Meridian owner Marie Davis, who estimates that roughly 100 hustlers work downtown and another 20 at SFO. "I sometimes lose 10 rides a day at the airport."
The SFPD Taxicab Commission's Sgt. Terry Collins doesn't mention firearms like McGuire, but he says a number of reports do involve fraud and extortion. Collins recalls a month-old sexual harassment incident and another, more disturbing crime that bolsters McGuire's claims that limos offer little protection for women riders.
Collins says that about a year-and-a-half ago a driver picked up a few women on Union Street. (Collins would not release names.) It was late, and all of them were wasted. One by one, the driver dropped off each woman.
But the last one didn't make it home that night.
"She woke up the next morning in the back of the cab [of the limo] with her underwear around her ankles," says Collins.
Worse, when she reported the sexual assault to the police, she couldn't remember what the driver looked like, or the make or model of the vehicle.
"When you get into a cab, it is well-marked with tags and color schemes," says Collins. "If there is a problem, we have an idea who we're going after."
Not so with limos, which come in two more or less anonymous hues: black and white.
Taxi drivers add that the riders can't tell whether or not a limo operator is insured or even if he has the proper licenses. Those concerns might be genuine, but the primary cause for alarm among most cabbies is the drain on their wallets. McGuire and her compatriots pay up to $90 in gate fees, the cost of renting a medallion from a taxi company for a single shift. Limo operators, on the other hand, shell out only a one-time $500 fee to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for a three-year Transportation Charter Party (TCP) permit.
"This has been simmering in the [taxi] industry for years," says Mark Gruberg, a board member of United Taxicab Workers (UTW) and a Yellow Cab driver. "It has erupted at times, but it doesn't go away."
The perennial problem came to a head four years ago, after Richard Hybels, now the owner of Metro Cab and the manager of Ace Cab, bought a video camera and taped limo drivers hawking rides to tourists. He sent the tape and several letters to state Sen. Quentin Kopp, who'd been solicited by limo drivers twice himself. Kopp responded with a special hearing of the State Transportation Committee to examine "unlawful limousine services."
Although the attention brought no solution, plenty of suggestions were offered. Kopp says he toyed with the idea of licensing limousines through local authorities in order to cut back on the total number of TCPs but ultimately pulled back. "This is turf to the PUC," says Kopp. "If you introduce a bill to allow local authorities to issue licenses, that means less work to the PUC. Which means people there might be out of a job. You can predict that they will oppose it."
Sgt. Collins says more cabs on the street could alleviate the demand for limos, but current cab drivers are suspicious of adding taxis because they say off-peak hours are already lean. Besides, at Mayor Willie Brown's prompting, the city has already started issuing 100 new regular service medallions and 20 more for taxis equipped for the handicapped. As of yet, only 20 new hacks are on the street, so the full effect of the new medallions is unknown.
The UTW, which began investigating the limo industry at length around the time of Kopp's hearing, continues to file reports with the police and the PUC. "We're at the step where we'd like to see more enforcement, not more regulation," says Dave Barlow, the UTW's secretary and point man on limos.
That's a matter of resources, according to both the SFPD and the PUC. The PUC is technically responsible for watching the limos, but that office lacks the staff to patrol S.F. more than once a month. And even then, Richard Molzner, the PUC's special agent in the Consumer Services Division, says he's unwilling to cite limos just for soliciting; he says he'd prefer to nail unlicensed drivers. "It's a priority thing," he says. "We go after more serious violations."