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Charlotte Douglas to rebid controversial taxi contract

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TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Yellow Cab, Crown Cab and City Cab taxis await travelers recently at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Their contracts will continue through next year.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport will rebid a controversial contract for taxi service following allegations of a pay-to-play scheme, officials said Tuesday.

The Observer reported last week that the FBI is probing the contract and has interviewed at least two people about how it was awarded.

Controversy over the airport’s taxi contract – which cut access to Charlotte Douglas from 12 companies to three – has simmered for years. The issue resurfaced after former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s arrest on federal corruption charges.

“The airport is committed to a fair and equitable process,” Charlotte Douglas officials said in a brief statement. The airport will start work on a new request for proposals immediately, and begin collecting proposals from taxi companies in the fall.

For now, the three companies serving the airport will remain the same: Yellow Cab, Crown Cab and City Cab. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle has renewed their contracts for one year, meaning they will have exclusive access to pick up passengers at the airport through next summer.

Renewing the current contract while simultaneously conducting the request for proposals will ensure service isn’t disrupted, the airport said.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Obiad Khan, an owner of Diamond Cab, which lost access to the airport in 2011.

“It’s good news, but we have another year of hardship. We have another year to try and pay the bills.”

Before Charlotte City Council voted to award the contract in 2011, some companies that were not recommended publicly alleged that they had been approached by Mohammad Jenatian, the head of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance.

His pitch, they said, was that a top-level membership to his group could get the companies back to the airport. Jenatian has repeatedly denied those allegations.

Cannon was a member of the HTA’s board of directors. Following his March arrest on federal corruption charges, two of the cab companies that lost access to Charlotte Douglas came forward to say they had been approached by a Cannon associate in 2011. For $10,000, they said the man told them, they could get back access to Charlotte Douglas.

Both companies told the Observer they declined the offer.

It was not clear late Tuesday whether the airport would limit the number of cab companies allowed to three or allow more companies access. An airport spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions.

In an interview earlier Tuesday, Mayor Dan Clodfelter said he thought “competition was good” in terms of having multiple taxi companies operating at Charlotte Douglas, though he said he didn’t know what was the correct number of cab companies.

“We will determine how many companies ... will be appropriate,” said City Manager Ron Carlee. “It will take a number of months.”

Airport officials have said the previous arrangement, under which 12 companies could pick up travelers at Charlotte Douglas, allowed too many cabs and hurt customer service with inconsistent quality.

Drivers are now required to have amenities such as a GPS and credit-card machines. The airport also said that, under the old system, drivers had to wait too long to pick up customers.

The airport’s exclusive cab contracts are potentially lucrative. On Friday, in response to a request from City Council, Charlotte staff provided the number of taxi trips by each of the companies from Charlotte Douglas in April.

Crown Cab racked up the most airport trips, with 13,382 during the month. If each of those trips were at the $25 flat rate to get from the airport to uptown Charlotte, that would equate to $334,550 worth of revenue for City Cab in April.

Yellow Cab collected 12,249 fares at the airport in April, and City Cab collected 3,907.

The out-of-state owners of Yellow Cab were major political supporters of Cannon. According to campaign finance records, they gave him $28,000 for his 2013 mayoral campaign, with three of the owners giving the $8,000 legal maximum. The money amounted to 10 percent of the total funds Cannon raised.

Charlotte Douglas had to let the three companies know what it intended to do about the contract at least a month before mid-July, when the contract runs out if not renewed.

Under the original deal, the airport’s contract had four one-year renewal options. Two one-year options are left, so the contract could have been in place until 2016.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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