by Dan Wheeler
HARTFORD. Some taxi cab operators and the people who oversee them disagreed yesterday over a plan to deregulate the industry and differed over the potential effect on inner cities and rural riders.
The deregulation would benefit riders and drivers and force competition in an industry dominated by large companies, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal testified at a public hearing.
But some taxi cab drivers who say they have already paid dearly to operate in the state fear they will lose business. And they said deregulation will open up the industry to unqualified drivers.
Under Blumenthal's proposal, applicants would no longer be required to prove there is a need for more cabs in a geographical area, as now required by the Department of Transportation. Two other requirements - proving financial stability and good moral fiber - would remain in force.
``The long overdue purpose of this bill is to unleash the taxi market, permit more competition and thereby cheaper, better service,'' Blumenthal said.
The DOT regulates nearly 700 cabs in the state.
The competition for ridership between big and small companies is played out all over. But a tussle last summer in Danbury caught the attention of some officials and was partly responsible for a renewed ef fort to break down barriers to starting up a business.
In the Danbury area, a small company, Maffei's, applied for and was denied two additional licenses. Maffei's major competitor, New Fairfield Taxi, contested the expansion and prevailed. Maffei's owner charged that the larger company was trying to maintain a monopoly, but at the same time not serving the public.
State Rep. Norma Gyle, R-New Fairfield, promised to raise the deregulation issue after that dispute. She said at the time that the state should regulate the industry, but that the market, not the state, should determine how many cabs are on the road.
Blumenthal said that will mean more cabs and safer riders.
``It will not mean abandoning safety or oversight,'' he added.
Those who need cabs the most - the elderly and the poor who are usually in the cities - will benefit, he said.
Mark Maffei said he had no choice but to support deregulation because his larger competitor had shut down the market. He said in a telephone interview that there is a need for additional cabs in the Danbury region, but that New Fairfield Taxi wants to keep the market to itself.
``The people of the state should decide how many cars are on the road, not the DOT,'' he said.
In his application, Maffei produced dozens of statements from Danbury riders who complained that they cannot get cabs on time.
Julius Nelson, who owns New Fairfield Taxi, company, could not be reached for comment. His own application to add 11 cabs to his fleet was denied last week for a variety of reasons.
But a spokesman for a group of cab drivers who appeared at the hearing said the deregulation will mean havoc. Anyone who can show insurance, financial stability and a clean record will be given a license, said Bill Scalzi, who spoke for a group of New Haven-based drivers.
And Scalzi said cities and some rural areas won't get better coverage because the new cab drivers will simply flood lucrative areas such as train and bus stations. Scalzi said that deregulation has failed in other cities that and there is ample evidence to suggest it would fail here.
Blumenthal's proposal also would require a $5,000 fee to operate in cities of more than 100,000 people. A $2,500 fee would be required in smaller municipalities.
The cost of a state license is $88 per year, but some cab drivers have said they must spend thousands to either lease a cab from the certificate holder or work under the licensed operator because they can't get their own license.
That black market can be smashed through deregulation, Blumenthal said.