By Megan Poinski
After hours of hearing about taxi drivers afraid of losing their jobs, past labor disputes, and companies feeling shut out of the bidding process, the Board of Public Works on Wednesday tabled a four-year $7.1 million contract to run the taxi concession at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.
The contract has been highly controversial since it first came to the board March 23. A large group of BWI taxi drivers protested a proposed one-year extension of the contract the airport already had with BWI Taxi Management, Inc.
The extension was requested because it was taking airport officials longer than expected to finish vetting a new contract, and officials wanted to be sure that there would be taxi drivers serving the airport in the interim. The board voted to extend the contract for 90 days.
The airport is run by the Maryland Aviation Administration, which awards an exclusive contract to pick up passengers.
More than 50 current BWI taxi drivers packed the Governor’s Conference Room on Wednesday, overflowing the often-crowded Board of Public Works meeting. Every available place to stand was taken, and latecomers stood inside the doorway or watched the webcast of the meeting on a large-screen TV in the hallway.
“We had a lot of information thrown at us at the last minute,” Treasurer Nancy Kopp said after the meeting, explaining the board’s decision. “There were questions about our legal authority and responsibility. Given the options before us, the lieutenant governor, comptroller and I thought more time was needed. This is not about the specifics of the contract. We just need more time to make the right decision.”
Board members Kopp, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown – sitting in for Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is on an economic development trip to Asia – said they will pick the issue up again in two weeks.
Airport officials are recommending the contract be awarded to Virginia-based Dulles Airport Taxi Inc. However, the president of that company has been targeted in the past for unfair labor practices, the board was told. The business model proposed by Dulles Airport Taxi is also completely different than the one currently in place at BWI, leading to higher fees for taxi drivers and possible layoffs.
Bids from two well-established Maryland companies were never opened because they were missing some information. And many of the current cabbies opposed any sort of change.
“What we want on behalf of Maryland is the revenues, but we also want appropriate working conditions for the drivers,” Franchot said. He was answered by a round of applause from taxi drivers.
Bishop Robinson Jr., who represented the second-place bidder BWI Taxi Management, said that there are large and significant differences between the business plans of his company – which currently holds the contract – and Dulles Airport Taxi.
There are currently about 320 taxi drivers serving the BWI Airport, but the new contract calls for only 250 drivers. BWI Airport Executive Director Paul Wiedefeld said that this has to do with lower demand, and said that the number of drivers could be gradually increased.
Right now, Robinson explained, about 80% of the taxi drivers that serve the airport own their cabs. This means that they can keep more of their revenues because they don’t need to lease their vehicles from the company. But Dulles Taxi is planning to change that mixture, only having a bit more than half of the taxis serving BWI owned by their operator. This means that the company can make more money off of the drivers.
Attorney Neal Janey, who represents a few of the drivers, said that what Dulles Taxi can do goes further than that. There is no guarantee in the new contract that current drivers will keep their jobs, and Janey said that the contract already pretty much guarantees that 70 of them will lose their jobs.
“They could send home the entire fleet,” he said.
Robinson also mentioned that Dulles Airport Taxi’s proposal would bring in $1 million more to the state annually – but that money would all come out of the pockets of taxi drivers. The company is proposing to raise fees to drivers, as well as institute a brand new $20 communication fee to everyone. Currently, drivers pay a $169 stand fee to BWI Airport each week.
Dulles Airport Taxi President and CEO Farouq Massoud has been in the taxi business for years – and has been the subject of scrutiny himself. According to news articles, Massoud held the contract to run the Dulles taxi franchise more than a decade ago and had serious problems. Taxi drivers protested Massoud’s mismanagement, Franchot said, reading from articles.
The drivers felt that Massoud had unfair labor practices, charged them too much to drive, and paid them so little that they had to work excessive overtime hours. An investigation started, and Massoud was stripped of the contract.
Since 2008, Massoud has had the contract to run taxis at Dulles again.
“I’m not comfortable, given that history, with making a decision,” Franchot said. “We’re talking about not treating workers fairly.”
Massoud was at the meeting, but only spoke to confirm that the history was true. His attorney, Harold Brazil, said that the taxi business is difficult. Since Massoud has received the current contract for Dulles Airport taxis, Brazil said that he has a record of exceptional service.
Franchot said he was surprised that two leading Maryland taxi companies – Yellow Cab, part of Veolia Transport, and Regency Taxi – submitted bids that were found to be insufficient.
Wiedefeld said this surprised him too, and said he worked with all bidders to try to get them to be compliant. Yellow Cab did not properly indicate what they would do, he said, and Regency Taxi could not prove minority business participation. He said they were each given four chances to comply with the requirements.
“At some point, we had to finish the procurement,” he said.
Wiedefeld said that the bids from Veolia and Regency were not even opened because their information was incomplete. So the revenues and particulars of their proposals were never known.
But Veolia Transport CEO Mark Joseph told the board that they were not given enough chances or guidance to bring their bid into compliance. The company currently holds the contract for luxury and limousine transportation from BWI, and he said that the airport worked with him to ensure that the company’s bid was 100% percent correct.
Joseph said that if he had just 48 hours to take a second look at the bid, he would be able to revise it so it complied with the airport’s standards.