As Florida retiree Mary Anne Barksdale arrived for one of her regular Las Vegas trips, she told the taxi driver to take her to the Flamingo by the shortest route.
The driver promptly ignored her, leaving McCarran International Airport through the tunnel under the runways to the Las Vegas Beltway before heading north on Interstate 15, nearly doubling the fare. This rankled Barksdale enough to file a complaint with the Nevada Taxicab Authority.
When faced with yet another example of long hauling, authority administrator John Plunkett vowed to make enforcement of honest rides his top priority.
That was in August 2002.
Several administrators, enforcement chiefs, authority board members, crackdowns and breathless undercover investigations have come and gone since Barksdale's experience, which made headlines in its day. If anything, the Las Vegas version of clipping tourists has become so commonplace that some drivers no longer hide it.
The issue has flared anew in recent weeks, an outgrowth of the continuing battle between drivers and companies over whether allowing more cabs on the roads has diluted drivers' incomes, prompting more of them to long haul to make ends meet and to preserve their jobs.
While some drivers recently have become vocal in condemning long hauling, key reasons for inertia on the issue remain: The drivers' pay structure; lack of interest by the tourism industry; and the slim chance that a long hauler will ever be punished.
EVERYONE'S DOING IT
"Long hauling is becoming truly epidemic," said 14-year driver Stephen Lenett with Whittlesea Blue Cab/Henderson Taxi. "Originally, you saw it from the airport to the hotels, but now it's just as prevalent going back to the airport. People are coming up with more creative ways to take people on longer rides."
Driver Kellie Obong, for example, recalled being the second of two cabs ferrying a large group from the airport to Bellagio in December. She dutifully followed the first driver - to the Beltway, then south on I-15 to the Blue Diamond Road exit, before turning north on Las Vegas Boulevard, stretching a $15 fare without waiting time to $50.
At the April 9 authority meeting, one driver not only admitted to long hauling but justified it as a way to relieve congestion on Paradise Road. The real criminals, he said, are lousy tippers.
But others are pushing back.
"We are stealing from our customers, which is not right," driver Dadios "Jonas" Tessema told the Nevada Transportation Authority at an April 19 meeting.
Although the practice is considered commonplace, it's hard to pinpoint the extent of long hauling in Las Vegas.
Taxicab authority board member Dean Collins estimates that at least a third of the trips out of the airport go the long way, based on his discussions with people in the industry. Some drivers put the percentage of long haul rides at 50 percent or even 70 percent.
In 2011, 3.3 million taxi rides started at the airport. If half of those rides resulted in an extra $10 on the meter, a conservative number for long hauls, passengers were fleeced more than $10 million.
Barksdale, now 81, said she and her husband rented cars on subsequent trips rather than deal with cabs.
By the most conservative estimate, less than 1 percent of long haulers get caught.
In 2011 the authority's 29 enforcement officers investigated 4,877 accidents, inspected 7,391 cars and certified and sealed 2,336 meters, among other duties.
To try to curb long hauling, the uniformed officers occasionally station themselves by the tunnel and stop random cabs to check their destinations. The officers also go to resorts to check the meters as cabs pull up. Fares of $25 or $30, about double what a trip from the airport should be, can prompt a citation.
But Jason White, a driver for Vegas Western and a representative of the United Steelworkers Union, said drivers tip each other off by mobile devices and evade crackdowns.
The authority also fielded 1,095 long hauling complaints, seeing only a few hundred - the exact number was not available - through to prosecution. The Metropolitan Police can also ticket cabbies for long hauling, which kicks the case into Justice Court, where available statistics are also slim.
Most complaints dead-end because few tourists make the time and effort to go beyond an angry phone call and fill out formal paperwork.
And the few cases that go all the way often come down to whether the passenger gave verbal permission for a long haul, which makes it legal under state law. This leads to what's known as "selling the tunnel," or persuading passengers that the long way - via the tunnel and I-15 to the Strip - is faster than taking congested streets with long red lights.
Most drivers also know that the rewards of fleecing tourists far outweigh the penalty they might have to pay in the unlikely event of a citation. The fine for a first offense is $100, with penalties rising in steps to $500 and possible license revocation on the fifth conviction.
To date, the tourism industry, a potent voice in other cities, has not publicly pushed for change.
"Hotels and motels normally can be a strong force behind stopping long hauling,'' said Charles Johnson, president of the taxi consulting company Total Contract Solutions in Little Elm, Texas. But on the Strip, he said, resorts "are 10 times busier than hotels in other parts of the country and they just don't seem to care as much about taxis."
Some Strip resort doormen do offer a little help, however, by giving guests written directions for the shortest route.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority each year surveys travelers on problems during their stay. Long hauling doesn't make the list, though tales of dishonest Vegas cabbies are common on travel review websites.
In September, Wendy, a tourist from England, used TripAdvisor to warn that she had been charged $30 for a $20 trip.
"It was our first tip to Las Vegas, we will be more wary if we return," she wrote. "Being English, I don't like to argue, but he definitely didn't get a tip off me!!"
Johnson said that the way Las Vegas cab companies operate enables a culture of long hauling.
In most cities, drivers are independent contractors who rent their cabs and keep all their fares. Las Vegas, drivers and companies split revenues, giving both parties reason to cheat, he said.
"An outside, disinterested observer would conclude that nobody cares because long hauling isn't that tough to stamp out," said Richard Segerblom, a lawyer for the Industrial Technical Professional Employees Union, which has organized several cab companies.
LITTLE PUSH FOR REFORM
Taxicab Authority administrator Charles Harvey, who took the position a year ago vowing to bring long hauling under control, declined to be interviewed for this article. His representative said the authority has taken steps such as posting direct-route fares on its own website and that of the LVCVA, conducting random enforcement actions and starting discussions about possible reforms.
The most serious attempt to stamp out long hauling came two years ago when the authority staff pitched a $20 flat rate fare between the airport and the Strip. Lacking cab company support, it went nowhere.
"The No. 1 method cities use to combat this problem is to implement a flat rate from the airport," said industry consultant Johnson, citing Houston and Portland, Ore., as examples.
However, Jason Awad, the owner of Lucky Cab Co., said flat rates come with their own problems and abuses. Awad was the only owner or senior manager among the city's eight cab companies who responded a request for comment.
Another idea, fining companies as well as drivers, has also been rejected.
Other proposals include:
■ Posting honest fare estimates in cabs, at taxi stands, at hotels and at the airport. The authority said it is working on the notices, which would include numbers to call to report long hauling.
■ Checking daily time sheets to identify and take action against drivers and companies with unusually high revenue.
■ Equipping cabs with tracking devices and monitoring their movement.
■ Changing the way companies evaluate drivers to remove incentives to cheat.
"The drivers have really been placed between a rock and a hard place," said Sam Moffitt, a Yellow Cab driver and steward with the Industrial Technical Professional Employees Union.
But Awad said drivers could make just as much money by "not wasting time doing something unethical or illegal," while picking up a couple more fares per trip.
Whatever the solution, said authority board member Collins, "This will have to be a joint resolution. If we just point fingers, it will never get better."
What should it cost? The Nevada Taxicab Authority has drawn up a list of estimated fares from McCarran International Airport to 70 hotels throughout the valley based on the shortest route.
In addition, the authority has posted a comprehensive brochure aimed at taxi passengers.
Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at email@example.com or 702-387-5290.