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Long-hauling could be black mark on Las Vegas’ GOP convention hopes

Las Vegas is angling to host the 2016 Republican National Convention at the same time the Nevada Taxicab Authority is trying to shake off a reputation for lax enforcement of taxi drivers who long-haul passengers to illegally jack up fares.

It is one of eight cities vying to host the convention, where the GOP will nominate its presidential and vice presidential candidates. The competition is fierce because winning the event will bring lots of attention and money to the host — potentially an estimated $400 million to Southern Nevada’s economy.

The city is seen as the front-runner because it regularly holds major conventions, some with 150,000 participants, and the city has plenty of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, most within walking distance of the Las Vegas Convention Center, the proposed convention site.

A factor in Las Vegas’ favor is that McCarran International Airport is just a couple of miles from the famous casino-lined Strip and is a three-mile drive to the convention center. Transportation issues are a greater challenge for other cities in the running, as convention attendees probably would have to take long bus rides rides between their hotels and the convention sites, an inconvenience that has stymied past GOP events.

Any problems with transportation in Las Vegas, including long-hauling by taxicabs, could be a black mark on the city’s efforts to lure the Republican National Convention, an event bringing in at least 50,000 visitors.

Here, the airport is also a starting point for visitors to get ripped off by unscrupulous cabbies taking them the long way without their knowledge to hotels on the Strip. A state audit in 2013 estimated that nearly a fourth of sampled taxi rides from the airport were long-hauls, costing passengers about $15 million annually.

OFFICIALS CONFIDENT

Nevadans involved in putting together Las Vegas’ convention bid said they were confident that any issue with taxicabs and transportation will be solved by the time the 2016 convention arrives.

“We have complete faith that this issue will be completely resolved long before the 2016 convention,” said Jack St. Martin, executive director of Las Vegas 2016.

Dawn Christensen, the senior director of communications for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, also expressed confidence that any taxicab issues will be fixed.

“The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is committed to providing our visitors with the best possible experience in the destination,” Christensen said. “We are monitoring the situation and are in regular communication with the Nevada Taxicab Authority regarding any impact on our guest experience.”

In recent months, problems have emerged with the Taxicab Authority, the state law enforcement agency charged with regulating all aspects of the taxi industry, including long-hauling. A recorded conversation emerged between the authority’s chief investigator, Ruben Aquino, and another investigator, Chris Rivers. In the December 2012 conversation, they acknowledged that cab companies effectively oversee the authority’s day-to-day operations and that they cannot be heavy-handed, court records and audio show.

Citation figures also dropped steeply in 2013. The authority’s force of 26 investigators wrote just two long-hauling citations in December 2013. For the entire year, the agency wrote 225 citations for long-hauling, down from 425 in 2012.

Taxicab Authority officials have pointed to recent efforts to combat long-hauling, including posted signs with fare information at the airport and the authority’s stepped-up efforts: 114 long-hauling citations were issued in February.

OBSERVERS: FIX THE PROBLEM NOW

Political observers say long-hauling is an issue that should be addressed, and transportation is just one of myriad priorities for a city that wants to host a national presidential convention.

Brian Wahby, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, was part of an unsuccessful effort by St. Louis to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

“I think they should be concerned, only to the extent that they can’t resolve the issue prior to being selected and prior to the actual convention,” Wahby said.

In St. Louis’ case, transportation got a look, primarily from the broader standpoint of capacity, not long-hauling.

Other areas come into play in attracting political conventions. Those include the availability of convention center space and hotel rooms and whether the convention’s location is in a swing state such as Nevada, possibly tipping the scales in a candidate’s favor.

Political conventions aside, Wahby said it would seem that officials would want to address the problem, given Nevada’s reliance on tourism and travel.

“I’ve got to believe whether or not you’re bidding for any national political campaign, it behooves the government to resolve the issue,” he said.

Long-hauling could be a factor that party officials consider when looking at the logistics, said Martin Johnson, professor and chairman of political science at University of California, Riverside.

“If there’s things like long-hauling going on, that seems to me like something I can imagine them being concerned and the party looking at issues like: ‘Are we partially responsible for bringing people into a community where they get ripped off?’ ” he said.

But, he stressed, that’s one consideration among others, like what backdrop Las Vegas would provide a convention.

State officials remain sensitive to media coverage of the Taxicab Authority and long-hauling, and the national image it gives Las Vegas.

“It is difficult to change public opinion but we must turn this around so that our residents and visitors aren’t reading national headlines about getting ripped off by cabdrivers,” Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry, wrote in an email to staffers of the taxicab authority, which is within his department.

LAS VEGAS PRESENTATION LOOMS

It’s a delicate time in the selection process for any problems to crop up because the Republican National Committee’s Site Selection Committee is in the middle of reviewing bids from the cities.

Five of the cities presented their bids to the RNC Site Selection Committee on March 3 in Washington, D.C. But a storm delayed presentations by Las Vegas, Dallas and Cincinnati, which are scheduled to present their convention plans to the GOP panel on Friday.

Ryan Mahoney, an RNC spokesman, said the party isn’t prejudging any city. Asked about the problem of long-hauling in Las Vegas, Mahoney said: “We’re not commenting on any specific bids at this time.”

Said Lee Haney, spokeswoman for the Livery Operators Association, which represents 77 percent of the taxis and limousines on Clark County streets: “It (long-hauling issue) definitely doesn’t help.”

Owner Brent Bell of Bell Transportation and director Jonathan Schwartz of Yellow Checker Star say they haven’t heard of any pressure being exerted to “solve the long-haul problem” in regards to the convention.

Another cab company owner said long-hauling isn’t limited to Las Vegas.

“I think the majority of conventioneers and people who travel, from the beginning of time, have been long-hauled in New York and Chicago. You know — ‘Didn’t I see that building twice on this ride?’ You’ve heard those stories everywhere in cities,” said George Balaban, owner of Desert Cab.

“So I don’t think the issue of customers being cheated by cabdrivers is anything new. You have those kinds of stories in Chicago and New York and any big city where people don’t live there and are unfamiliar.”

Review-Journal writer Richard N. Velotta contributed to this report. Contact reporter Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-405-9781. Follow him on Twitter @BenBotkin1. Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.

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