Five years ago, Philip Sullivan, then 75, went to jail in Aspen for offering free rides around town in his Kia minivan.
His crime? Accepting tips without obtaining a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
This year, the city of Aspen is offering free taxi rides to residents and visitors, though drivers are also happy to accept tips. The city doesn’t have a PUC certificate either, but Mayor Steve Skadron and City Manager Steve Barwick are not going to jail.
It’s good to be a local government, exempt by law from the petty requirements that state agencies impose on ordinary citizens.
Did I say Aspen’s service is free? Well, to riders it is. But not to local taxpayers. City Council last month awarded a one-year, $286,080 contract to Florida-based Downtowner Inc. for offering on-demand cab service by means of five electric vehicles carrying five passengers each.
The contract follows a three-month pilot program during the summer, for which the city paid Downtowner $89,250.
Sullivan didn’t cost Aspen taxpayers anything — except when he was locked up in the local jail, reluctantly availing himself of room and board.
Sullivan was brought to the PUC’s attention by High Mountain Taxi, the only licensed cab service in the area. It didn’t like the unauthorized, low-cost competition, even if it was a 75-year-old with a single vehicle. The PUC sent out an undercover agent who entrapped Sullivan by soliciting rides. The agent left tips on the seat that Sullivan didn’t refuse.
Sullivan ended up being fined $15,000 and served two short jail terms, in 2011 and 2012, for contempt of court. His contempt was flaunting court orders prohibiting him from offering free taxi rides.
If there is any justice to be found in the launch of the new city-subsidized taxi service, it’s that High Mountain Taxi doesn’t like it either, but this time it can’t do anything about it.
Sullivan, now an octogenarian, is back in business, this time driving a Chevy Suburban. He’s legal because he organized as a nonprofit and became its sole employee, entitling him to charge fares and accept tips. Like Uber and Lyft, he can vary his fares depending on demand.
He told Complete Colorado he works six to eight hours a day, from mid-evening until 3 a.m. Since Downtowner runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, he’s able to operate a few hours without having to compete with it. Also, Downtowner is limited to serving mostly the downtown area.
Still, Sullivan maintains the new competition has reduced his business a bit, although he said he can’t put number on it.
He is contemptuous of the greener-than-thou Downtowner and its all-electric vehicles giving free rides.
“Eighty to ninety percent of the people it serves are multi-millionaires,” he insisted. “The people who benefit are the super-rich, going to the Ralph Laurens, other corporate retailers, and expensive restaurants.”
His figures may be imprecise, but there’s no question that the city-subsidized rides amount to socialism for the rich folks who populate Aspen.
Thanks to legislative action in recent years, it’s now easier for entrepreneurs to get into the taxi business. They don’t have to prove in advance to the PUC there’s a “need” for their service, a stumbling block that strictly limited competition in the taxi business for decades.
The increased competition, especially in the Denver metro area, is keeping prices down.
So there would seem to be little need, especially in Aspen, for “free,” taxpayer-paid transit.
Sullivan keeps driving because he’s spent his life in the taxi business. He operated the now defunct Mellow Yellow Cab company, Aspen Limousine and Vans to Vail for many years, selling out in 1995, then even drove briefly for High Mountain Taxi.
There’s more than a little irony in the fact that the free transportation he once offered to Aspenites without cost to the taxpayer has been taken over by local government — but now is heavily subsidized.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at email@example.com You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.