PHILADELPHIA -- Airport shuttle operators see red over what they consider onerous fees and regulations imposed by the Philadelphia Parking Authority that they say could put them out of business.
"Save Philadelphia's eco-friendly airport shuttles" is the motto of a website campaign launched recently by Lady Liberty Transportation Co. and Dave's Best Limo, two Philadelphia shuttle firms suing the parking authority in a long-boiling dispute.
The four-year-old federal lawsuit contends the agency's fees and rules for inspecting and certifying vehicles and training drivers violate federal interstate commerce law and add an extra layer of regulation and cost that hits shuttles harder because they charge less per passenger than taxis and limos.
The civil case, before U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe in Philadelphia, is one of eight lawsuits brought by local taxi and limousine owners, drivers, and operators against the parking authority's tougher standards.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last Friday revived one lawsuit, saying the state Commonwealth Court should hear it. That suit, brought on behalf of taxi drivers and cab and dispatch companies, asserts the parking authority did not follow proper state procedures in developing the regulations, said Andrew A. Chirls, the authority's attorney.
Until 2005, taxis, limousines, and shuttles were regulated by the state Public Utility Commission, which charged a yearly assessment, provided driver training, and conducted spot inspections.
In 2005, state legislators, led by John Perzel (R., Phila.), decided regulation by the PUC was inadequate and shifted oversight to the parking authority in an effort to get junker taxis off city streets, improve customer service, and transform the industry into a model of professionalism.
Shuttle companies, as distinct from taxis and luxury limousines that charge more per ride, say they serve a niche market. "They are relatively small businesses and operate at a thin margin," said Janine G. Bauer, their attorney.
Now, in addition to twice yearly state PennDOT inspections, and PUC requirements for annual certification and spot inspections, airport shuttles also pay parking authority fees to certify vans and drivers, to train and test drivers, and to inspect vehicles.
(PPA inspections are once every four years. Shuttles with more than 350,000 miles pay an extra $150 fee and are sometimes required to pay for additional inspections.)
"It's adding more burden to us," said Solomon Habtemicael, owner of Lady Liberty, which operates a fleet of 10-passenger vans from Center City hotels and residences to the Philadelphia airport. "What do I get by paying the parking authority? Nothing. Except I am increasing their paychecks."
Dave's Best Limo, which operates 15-passenger vans and buses, refuses to pay for the authority's driver training and certification that is "geared 80 percent toward taxi drivers and 20 percent to private limousine drivers," said Dave's safety and compliance officer, Lisa Melendez. "The training has nothing to do with shuttles."
The parking authority requires companies to buy a $85 training CD for each new driver. The agency also requires drivers to renew their certificate annually for $65. And, "all the fees keep increasing," Melendez said.
Dave's Best estimated it pays the parking authority $9,286 annually, while Lady Liberty said it paid the agency between $7,420 and $9,420 a year.
Chirls, the authority's attorney, said the cost of the fees and regulations for shuttle operators amounted to 11 cents a ride based on eight passengers in a van.
"If it's two people in a van, then it's 44 cents a ride," he said. "Anything they tell you about how it's dollars and dollars a ride is just not true."
Shuttle companies insist they maintain high standards for vehicle safety and driver training. Chirls said he believed that was true for Lady Liberty and Dave's Best. "But we have to regulate an industry. There's no evidence that the other companies do."
Six shuttle firms dropped out of the case after refusing to disclose financial information.
Last year, luxury limousines and airport shuttles paid $370,000 in inspection, license, and driver-training fees to the authority, Chirls said.
He acknowledged that the training CD was more oriented to taxis and luxury limousines, but said the content dealt with customer service and safety. "It's a CD with a lot of vignettes about how to be courteous and responsive to customers, how to explain fares, how to explain where you are going."
Van operators say that because they charge a fixed fare and travel regular routes, questions about fares do not come up.
The shuttle firms' attorney, Bauer, said there was no evidence of - and "not one piece of paper" concerning - complaints about shuttle service in the four-year-old lawsuit.
Amounts the Philadelphia Parking Authority charges businesses that offer limousine and shuttle services:
Annual van registration $250
Shuttles over 350,000 miles $150
Replacement sticker $20
Annual certificate renewal $65
New driver training:
w/classroom training $115
w/out classroom training $85
SOURCES: Philadelphia Parking Authority & shuttles; Philadelphia Inquirer