When more than 100,000 people attended the Kobalt 400 NASCAR race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this month, hundreds of fans took a taxicab from the resort corridor to the track.
The recommended route for cabs established by law enforcement personnel to ease traffic congestion was to head east on Lake Mead Drive or Bonanza Road to Hollywood Boulevard, then through the Hollywood gate at Nellis Air Force Base and a back route to the speedway.
Passengers who took that route, technically, were long-hauled by their cabdrivers.
“It’s ironic,” said George Balaban, owner of Desert Cab. “Most of the time when people talk about taxi long-hauling, we’re bad guys. But in this case, everybody is patting each other on the back for coming up with an expedient solution to a problem.”
And that, in essence, is what happens most of the time whenever a decision is reached in a cab on how to get from one point to another, a coalition of cab company owners says. Drivers, many who have been on the streets for hours during a shift or have years of experience transporting people throughout the city in busy times or slow periods, know the best way to get from Point A to Point B.
INDUSTRY CITES AUDIT FLAWS
Long-hauling, the illegal practice of transporting a passenger on a longer route than necessary to generate a higher fare, has given Las Vegas and the taxi industry a black eye for years.
Heat on the industry was turned up a notch nearly a year ago, in April, when the audit division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau published a 34-page report on the Nevada Taxicab Authority, the state agency that regulates Clark County’s 16 cab companies.
The most stinging finding of the audit was that the bureau determined that 614 — or 22.5 percent — of 2,730 trips from McCarran International Airport were long-hauls.
But representatives of the taxi industry say not only was the methodology used by auditors flawed, but auditors failed to take into consideration conversations and decisions that occur every time a customer sits down in a cab.
Cab company owners also resent that the media repeatedly report the audit findings whenever the long-haul issue is aired.
“The audit said a quarter of the cabs that went through the (McCarran) tunnel were long-hauls,” said Brent Bell, owner of Bell Transportation and president of the Livery Operators Association, which has membership representing 77 percent of the cabs and limousines operating in Clark County.
“That is simply untrue,” Bell said of the findings. “It does not take into consideration runs to Henderson, Green Valley Ranch, South Point and the Rhodes Ranch area. Believe it or not, taking the tunnel and the 215 to Red Rock Resort is cheaper than taking surface streets most of the time.”
Bell calculated two routes to get to Mandalay Bay and found that taking the tunnel route to Interstate 215 and Russell Road would cost $20.70 and taking Tropicana Avenue to Las Vegas Boulevard South to the resort would cost $18.10.
“We wouldn’t characterize taking the tunnel route to Mandalay Bay as a long-haul,” Bell said. “We categorize it as a customer wanting to get there faster for an extra $2.60.”
LONG-HAULING OCCURS, BUT …
But Bell doesn’t deny that long-hauling occurs.
“None of us are going to tell you that our drivers don’t long-haul. It happens. It’s egregious. But it doesn’t mean that we’ve got our heads in the sand and we aren’t doing anything about it. But it’s a wild and reckless assumption that any trip through the tunnel was presumptive long-hauling.”
Owners criticized the methodology of auditors’ findings. Auditors examined a sampling of trip sheets written by cabdrivers.
A trip sheet is a summation of a ride, from starting point to ending point and the fare charged.
Auditors compared those figures with the distance and estimated travel time listed by two websites. Comparing the trip sheet distance and the website, auditors came up with percentage of long-hauls and from that, extrapolated the amount of money customers overpaid — $14.8 million in 2012.
Cab company owners tried in vain to persuade auditors to re-examine the report and consider some of the circumstances that could occur in a taxi trip.
“It’s strictly data analysis,” said Rocky Cooper, audit supervisor for the Legislative Counsel Bureau. “We looked at the time written down and the fare charged. We didn’t look at traffic conditions. We didn’t consider requests to take a longer route. We don’t know whether a driver took them through the tunnel without asking.”
Under taxi regulations, a driver can recommend a different, longer route, a tactic used when traffic is heavy on a shorter route. Ultimately, the driver is supposed to take the route stated by the customer.
Another reason a cab fare could be higher is that some companies upsell. Like the waiter who tries to persuade a diner to buy an appetizer with a meal, Desert Cab drivers are trained to offer to make stops on a route.
Balaban said his drivers routinely ask tourists whether they want to go to the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign to have their pictures taken or whether they want to stop at a liquor store to dodge the high cost of minibar alcohol in a hotel room.
Other rides characterized as long-hauls aren’t. Bell said a disgruntled customer called to complain recently at the recommendation of a resort doorman. The doorman asked how high the fare was and told the customer to call and complain. Bell investigated and determined that the driver took the shortest route, but the bill included a fee imposed on all trips originating at McCarran, a fee for making payment with a credit card and a generous tip. The total bill was right about where it should have been.
The owners also say they are doing all they can to stop long-hauling, though they believe it isn’t as big an issue as the legislative audit and the media say it is.
“We as an industry take this issue very, very seriously,” said Jonathan Schwartz, a director with Yellow Checker Star, Southern Nevada’s second-largest cab operation. “We have done everything we possibly can in order to address this issue. We’ve had countless meetings with the Taxicab Authority. We’ve done hundreds and hundreds of hours of research to try to address the problem. The Taxicab Authority has posted signs at the airport.”
The signs, posted last year by the Taxicab Authority at the taxi stands at McCarran, list the approximate fare, travel time and most direct route and an alternate route to 24 resorts.
Similar information is posted on the backs of headrests inside cabs. The objective is to provide information to the riding public.
ERRANT CABBIES PUNISHED
Most cab companies refund fare money to customers who believe they were long-hauled. At Yellow Checker Star, drivers are required to personally purchase the money order to send to the customer.
Cab company owners say they’re doing their best to drum out offending long-haulers. While most companies have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy, Balaban, whose employees aren’t unionized, will fire a driver on the spot if he determines the driver purposely tried to rip off a customer.
Bell said he recently appeared before a referee in an appeal to the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation of a driver who was caught long-hauling a third time.
On the last occasion, investigating Taxicab Authority officers didn’t cite the driver for long-hauling. That was used as a defense and the referee sided with the driver. Bell plans to appeal.
The Taxicab Authority also began publishing a long-hauling database on its website. It lists the numbers of cabbies who have been cited for long-hauling, giving companies the ability to deny employment to a driver who has been fired for long-hauling and is looking for another job.
“If I find a driver that abuses a customer, that driver’s gone and the first thing I’m going to do is get his name in the long-hauling database,” Schwartz said.
Cab company owners say they are supportive of the Taxicab Authority’s efforts to introduce GPS-based technology to monitor taxi movements and discourage long-hauling because the software will produce a bread-crumb trail of a ride that can be compared with a trip sheet.
But the owners say the technology still wouldn’t address a customer changing his mind on a destination in mid-trip or making a stop at a store.
Another problem that has surfaced is that morale has suffered at cab companies because of the continuous allegations.
“Some of them say, ‘Hey, if they’re going to accuse us of ripping them off, I may as well do it,’ ” Schwartz said.
Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at email@example.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.