Charlotte Considers Letting More Taxi Firms Serve Airport

April 30--More cab companies could be allowed to pick up passengers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, in the wake of allegations that a pay-to-play scheme tied to former Mayor Patrick Cannon undermined the selection process.

Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said Tuesday that the airport needs to decide whether to renew the contract in about three weeks. And while he said he believes the process to select the cab companies was fair, Cagle said the airport needs to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

"It's disheartening what's happened with the former mayor, and it's also disturbing that this cloud has been cast over, especially, this contract," Cagle said.

Charlotte City Council decided in 2011 to restrict airport access from 12 cab companies to three -- Yellow Cab, Crown Cab and City Cab -- a move officials said was meant to improve customer service.

Cab companies that lost airport access complained during the selection process that they had been improperly asked for donations by a local tourism advocate in exchange for the contract.

But after Cannon's March 26 arrest, two cab company owners who lost access also came forward to say they had been approached by a Cannon associate and asked for $10,000 to get back their business at Charlotte Douglas.

Yellow Cab's out-of-state owners went on to become one of Cannon's largest donor blocs during his 2013 mayoral run, contributing $28,000, or 10 percent of his total.

Cannon was arrested on federal corruption charges last month. The FBI said he took about $48,000 in bribes in exchange for promises to help undercover agents posing as developers. Although the affidavit outlining the government's case doesn't mention cabs, Cannon allegedly said he could influence city departments to benefit the agents.

At the time of the cab selection, Cannon was chairman of the City Council's public safety committee, which oversaw cab-related issues. Cannon wasn't on the four-member airport selection committee that picked the cab companies, but he voted in favor of the companies the selection committee recommended.

Council's 3 options

The original contract with three cab companies is up for a one-year extension in mid-July. Cagle said the airport has three options. Charlotte Douglas could extend the contract as-is. Or, the airport could cancel the contract and let any cab company have airport access. Cagle said he doesn't favor that because it would be difficult to keep up standards in a totally unregulated environment.

The third option, Cagle said, would be to extend the contract for a shorter period of time than a year and start a process to re-bid the contract for airport access. That could bring in more companies than the current three, or replace them with new companies.

"That's what our focus is over the next week to two weeks," Cagle said. The airport's lawyers are examining that option. The airport has to let the cab companies know its intentions by mid-May. "That deadline is looming large," Cagle said.

Cagle said he doesn't believe there was corruption in the original cab selection process and that travelers have benefited from the tighter regulations.

"I think the city's request-for-proposal process and our form of city government provides for checks and balances that should eliminate or at least help to make it very difficult for one person to exert undue influence in the awarding of contracts," Cagle said.

"I have no reason, other than the allegations from some of the taxi companies of a perceived pay-to-play type of environment ... to think that was actually true," Cagle said. "I truly don't think the linkage is there."

Avoiding 'premature' call

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said it would be "premature" to comment on whether the airport would seek to bring in more companies.

"We understand that some people feel very strongly that the prior process was not fair, which is the cause for our evaluation," Carlee said.

Council members are likely to support a recommendation to expand the number of cab companies that can pick up passengers at the airport.

Three years ago, the airport's first recommendation was for only one company to operate at Charlotte Douglas. But some council members pushed to have more companies and three contracts were awarded instead.

Some of the owners said Tuesday that the consequences of lost airport access have been severe. Getting access to Charlotte Douglas would "bring me back to life," said Mohamed Moustafa, owner of Universal Cab.

"I lost my home, I lost my income, I lost a lot of things," said Moustafa, who said he has had to cut many of his cars. "It's a shame that we have to get the FBI involved to say that there was a scam."

Frank Hinson is the former co-owner of Checker Cab, which closed about 18 months ago after he lost access to the airport.

"There is no hope for me because I can't get back and running," Hinson said. "But I don't see why they don't return to the old system."

He said the airport could improve service while having more companies at Charlotte Douglas.

"They said they wanted the best cars," Hinson said. "They could have gotten better cars. They could have just said that."

Copyright 2014 - The Charlotte Observer

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