For more than a decade, Seattle officials have been pushing the Port of Seattle to help curb what many regard as a silly anachronism: Cabs that collectively travel more than 13 million miles a year empty in one direction or the other between Seattle and the airport.
Now that gas costs $4 per gallon, our roads are more congested than ever, and everyone seems more attuned to global warming, is it possible that a regional approach to end "deadheading" is in the offing?
There are some encouraging signs that the Port is serious about rethinking Sea-Tac's taxi system, including renewed talks between city and port staffers, as well as commitments from the mayor's office, city council members, and Port commissioners to work toward a solution.
But don't expect anything dramatic in the way of reform until 2010, when the Port's current contract with STITA — the taxi association that since 1989 has held exclusive rights to carry passengers away from the airport — expires.
Conversely, city officials aren't itching to grant STITA cabs authority to pick up passengers inside Seattle until city cabs get a regular piece of the relatively lucrative action at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. As a result, the vast majority of the roughly 1 million taxi trips between Seattle and Sea-Tac each year will continue to carry passengers in only one direction.
But what may finally force the Port to open up SeaTac to competition — and help forge a regional licensing system — is that STITA increasingly can't keep up with growing passenger volumes.
Numbers help tell the story: Over the past eight years, the size of STITA's fleet has remained stable at 166. During that same period, the number of STITA trips departing Sea-Tac has doubled, to more than 730,000.
Of those, roughly two thirds are to Seattle. And assuming that a like number of city cabs travel back from Sea-Tac empty, that adds up to more than 13 million miles worth of deadheading. In addition to those trips, last year alone, the Port "belled in" (a rather quaint term reminiscent of bell hops) more than 158,000 non-STITA cabs to satisfy demand that STITA couldn't meet, records show.
Mark Reis, the Port's managing director of Sea-Tac, said STITA has wanted "to just buy more taxis and add to their fleet, to avoid giving other people the opportunity to pick up those fares."
But the Port has resisted that effort, he said, in part because with only two years left on the STITA contract, the Port wants to keep the door open to competition; building up STITA's fleet could undermine that option. Interestingly, the Port has also decided to get more proactive about calling in non-STITA cabs.
Up until very recently, the Port would wait until STITA couldn't meet demand before "belling in" outside cabs. But effective Sept. 14, the Port started calling in non-STITA cabs on a regular basis on Sunday evenings. Into the foreseeable future, Orange, Yellow, and Far West taxis will now join queued STITA cabs to pick up fares.
The Port maintains it's free to do this, Reis said, because of a contract provision "that allows us to fill demand they're not meeting." Sundays were chosen because of heavy loads of business people arriving for work-week meetings, area residents returning from vacations, and the fact that some STITA cabs take part of Sunday off.
Moreover, Reis didn't rule out the possibility that the Port might expand the program to satisfy unmet passenger demand on other days or times if necessary. Reis said the Port prefers that non-STITA cabs arriving at Sea-Tac on Sundays carry passengers, but he admitted the Port doesn't know if that's actually happening.
And that gets us to a central point. Like several others familiar with the cab industry that were contacted for this story, Reis notes that opening up Sea-Tac to competition — and forming a three-way licensing system with the Port, King County, and Seattle — won't be enough to kill deadheading.
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