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Latino livery taxis battle cabbies in central Mass

Juan Rosas, owner of Ecua Limo, points to the company's expired 2007 taxi license, hanging with certificates of appreciation for donations to the city poilce department, in the company's offices in Worcester, Mass., Friday, March. 5, 2010. Ecua Limo is one of two Latino-owned cab companies in Worcester being forced to shutdown because, police say, they violate a city ordinance limiting them to passengers who call 12 hours in advance. Juan Rosas, owner of Ecua Limo, points to the company's expired 2007 taxi license, hanging with certificates of appreciation for donations to the city poilce department, in the company's offices in Worcester, Mass., Friday, March. 5, 2010. Ecua Limo is one of two Latino-owned cab companies in Worcester being forced to shutdown because, police say, they violate a city ordinance limiting them to passengers who call 12 hours in advance. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
By Russell Contreras
Associated Press Writer / March 5, 2010

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BOSTON—A turf war between licensed taxis and livery drivers has taken on ethnic overtones in central Massachusetts, as two Latino-owned companies popular in immigrant neighborhoods in Worcester face the threat of shutdown if they don't pay thousands in fines.

The owners of Ecua Limo and New Worcester Limo say the penalties are being levied for breaking city rules they call unfair, such as requiring customers to book 12 hours in advance or keeping them from picking up passengers on the street or at the grocery store.

"This is about the transportation of poor people," said Sam Rosario, a spokesman for the livery companies. "They operate in areas where for years it's been difficult to get a cab. Our drivers are Spanish-speakers and passengers feel comfortable."

But owners of Red Cab and Yellow Cab say the rules, put in place about two years ago, prevent liveries from operating illegally as licensed cabs. They say the cab companies can't compete against the livery companies who pay a fraction of insurance costs. Licensed cab drivers have to pay $11,000 to $13,000 a year while livery drivers pay around $3,000.

Cab companies also complain the liveries cut into their business because they charge lower flat rates, instead of metered rates required by the city.

"Anybody (who's) reasonable would see that this is unfair," said Yellow Cab co-owner Bill Clark, who added that his company has Spanish-speaking employees and disputed the claim the cab companies don't serve Latino neighborhoods.

The livery companies are scheduled this weekend to begin a seven-day suspension imposed by Worcester police, and could remain grounded until both companies pay thousands in unpaid tickets.

The looming shutdown is the latest episode in a long fight between the livery companies and larger cab companies in Worcester, a battle that's similar in other cities.

Terry Mercer, the associate administrator overseeing motor carriers at the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, said taxi owners there complain that livery cars can pick up customers statewide, and aren't limited to defined areas, unlike cab drivers.

In New York, the city is engaged in a constant struggle against car service drivers who break the rules and pull over for people hailing them on the street.

In Worcester, customers of the livery cabs say they should be able to use the Latino-owned car service.

"I just feel more comfortable with them," said 40-year-old Silvia Cruz, who does not own a car and uses New Worcester Limo to go to the grocery store or get home from a club.

Cruz said she's disappointed that the livery companies might be shut down for a while.

"A lot of my friends aren't happy," she said. "We really don't want to take the other cabs but we need to go places."

Since the 1970s, Worcester has operated under a "medallion system" that limits the number of taxi cabs on the street. Only those car with medallions originally purchased from the city for around $125 could operate within city limits. But since then, the 110 medallions have been purchased in the open market for as much as $75,000 from competing cab companies.

Cabs that have medallions can advertise on vehicles and pick up passengers who hail them from the street. Liveries cannot.

Livery taxis have been operating more than a decade in the Worcester market, mainly serving in the city's Latino neighborhoods. They got around the medallion system by driving Lincoln town cars and operating legally as personal limo services.

Still, Red Cab and Yellow Cab owners complained that the livery companies were cutting into their business by waiting at grocery stores and bus stops, and eavesdropping on their scanners.

Two years ago, the cab companies persuaded city councilors to pass tough rules regulating livery companies after showing how the liveries were operating illegally as cab drivers.

Worcester Police Capt. John Ryder said during the first few months of the new rules police were lenient on enforcement. But in recent months, police have stepped up efforts in enforcing the livery ordinance and have handed out a number of tickets.

"Every stop we make, we find violations," Ryder said.

As a result, New Worcester Limo has racked up fines totaling $15,000, and Ecua Limo around $2,000, Ryder said.

But Rosario said the livery companies, which have about 45 cars, plan on getting around the suspension next week by picking up passengers for free and accepting only tips.

"We're fighting against a controlled monopoly in the city," he said. "These draconian rules are meant to drive my guys out of business."

City Councilor Joseph Petty said the city has been wrestling with the issue for years, and he's working on a making a deal.

"Hopefully, we can reach a compromise soon," he said.

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Associated Press Writers Ray Henry in Providence, R.I. and David Caruso in New York contributed to this report.