Fargo puts freeze on taxi licenses as 'gypsy cabs' cause concerns
FARGO — Kerim Nuhbegovic calls them "gypsy cabs."
The general manager of Doyle's Yellow Checker Cab said he's seeing an increase of vehicles around the city with smaller "taxi" signs on them, perhaps "light bars" sitting on top of the vehicle. He said they are unlicensed, unregulated and take only cash for trips.
Fargo City Auditor Steve Sprague said he's hearing about the same thing.
For that and other reasons, Sprague and Assistant City Attorney Nancy Morris started rewriting city taxi cab regulations as they plan to look into such issues as taxi cabs that are not clearly marked with a company name, uneven rates or fares, uninsured and uninspected vehicles and a lack of proper identification and background checks of drivers.
In the meantime, the city commission approved a moratorium on any new taxi cab licenses as well as extending current licenses until March 31, when the city hopes to have finalized new regulations after further meetings, research and a public hearing.
Sprague said they plan to meet with the taxi cab companies — or "vehicles for hire" companies as they are now referred to in the city books — to work on regulations. He said enforcement of any new rules will also be an issue.
Some city regulations were vague and some were dropped after Uber and Lyft came into the state about four years ago and city oversight laws were rewritten.
The city is prevented from any regulations on Uber and Lyft or their drivers, as those companies are covered under a state law also passed in 2015. The state law, for the most part, leaves it in the hands of the "transportation network companies" to be responsible for vehicle and driver safety as is the case across the nation where Uber and Lyft have operations.
"We have no jurisdiction," Sprague said.
Nuhbegovic said the ride-sharing companies don't face any fines or fees as they operate in the state.
Both Nuhbegovic and Sprague also said a person doesn't know where to call in the state to find information about complaints with those companies.
"Nobody knows what's going on," Nuhbegovic said of state officials and oversight of the companies.
Sprague said he recognizes the popularity of Uber and Lyft, which allow people to know how much their fare will be, who the driver will be and when their ride will arrive through smartphone apps.
However, he believes the city needs cab companies that operate around the clock.
"Sometimes, you can't get an Uber or Lyft at 4 in the morning," he said.
On weekend nights, the taxis are often helpful as "it can be hard to find a ride" if people have been drinking, although Sprague said it was really difficult before the ride-share companies arrived.
Morris adds that "we aren't saying taxis aren't safe here, but we are just looking out for the traveling public."
However, they have received complaints, as have security guards and officials at Hector International Airport in Fargo.
Darren Anderson, assistant airport manager, said one of the complaints he has heard about is fares as, for example, a passenger was charged $18 going one way and then when they came back from the same location it was almost double at $30.
Anderson said they also hear complaints about not seeing rate-showing meters anymore in taxis. Sprague said he noticed that taxi drivers use their cellphones to start the fare, but then also use the same phone to provide directions, thus not allowing customers to see the rates.
The assistant airport manager said another concern, which he often hears from security guards, is that there's not a name of a taxi cab company on vehicles.
Anderson said they have a policy at the airport where taxi companies are allowed one spot each along the main drop-off road by the terminal, and one driver from each company can stand and hold a sign in a designated area inside.
"A know a lot of people like this, as those with a carry-on bag can just grab one of the drivers and taxis and they're gone," Anderson said.
"It can get pretty hectic out here. The spots for the taxis are first come, first served," he said. "We've had a few verbal arguments between drivers."
In the end, though, he said the airport's system works "95% of the time" as the passengers decide what taxi they want to take or if they call for an Uber or Lyft. Those drivers must sit nearby in designated areas as they aren't allowed near the terminal because of a "geofence" or virtual fence that blocks calls to them if they are too close.
However, Anderson said he is concerned about "gypsy cabs" or those unmarked vehicles.
Nuhbegovic said simply that "this will go on until someone gets hurt."
Across the state border, he's also concerned about a new fee the city of Moorhead is charging their taxi company of $125 per vehicle.
In the meantime, he stood up for what their company does. He said their drivers undergo background checks and have "lots of training" such as in defensive driving, abuse precautions, cultural competency and in two-way radios.
Sprague, Nuhbegovic and Anderson pointed to one simple way to find out if a city taxi cab is regulated with a registered company: They will have a "City of Fargo" sticker notice in the windshield on the passenger side of the vehicle.