EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 10, 2013

Lawrence councilors want charm school for cabbies

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Francisco Hidalgo steered his yellow cab through the bustle outside the Market Basket supermarket on Essex Street yesterday, hopping out at the entrance to help a shopper load groceries into his trunk, as he’s done most work days for 21 years.

A husky 46-year-old city resident who raised two kids from the bounty of his fare box, Hidalgo is neatly dressed, soft-spoken and a little confused about suggestions that local cabbies could use a day or two in charm school.

“There are people in the city who don’t drive well — speeding every day, passing stop signs, don’t respect regulations,” Hidalgo said about what he’s encountered daily during his two decades behind the wheel. “I need to keep my license clean and respect the people who walk on the street, use my service.”

There is a different perspective at City Hall, where city councilors are holding up the license renewals for seven taxi and livery companies until their owners come in and account for the conduct of their drivers.

Councilors say their constituents complain about cabbies who lean on their horns to summon customers out of their homes, pick up fares in the middle of the street rather than pull over, run stop signs and pass stopped school buses, gather in neighborhoods with their engines running through the night, and more.

“There were two drivers holding up traffic, talking about their weekend, on Haverhill Street,” Councilor Sandy Almonte said yesterday, recalling the reaction she got when she suggested they pull over to continue their conversation. “I’m getting yelled at by the driver. I get the finger. How responsible are they as drivers in our city to do something like that?”

Efforts to reach the owners of the seven companies being summoned to Tuesday’s council meeting were not successful. The seven companies are JC Transportation, Liberty Service, Merrimack Valley Transportation, Five Star Express, Popular Taxi, Lawrence United Express and Go Caribe Transportation.

Outside Market Basket yesterday, a few of their drivers were more willing to talk.

“It’s complicated,” said Francisco Luis, a cabbie for a year, who said there is a double-standard on the road. “When people see a taxi do something bad, everybody says, the (expletive) taxi. But when you drive your private car, nobody says anything.”

There are four taxi companies and six livery companies licensed in Lawrence, including seven whose licenses are about to expire and have been asked to attend Tuesday’s council meeting. In all, the companies own 150 vehicles and employ more than 400 drivers, according to Capt. Roy Vasque, who commands the Police Department division that oversees the city’s taxi business.

Vasque said the owners are responsive to direction from police, including when police recently asked that drivers who were congregating on Amherst Street while waiting to be dispatched relocate to more isolated corners of the city, including Market Street by the street hockey rink or Pemberton Park.

“We bring the companies in” when complaints pile up about excessive honking, obstructing traffic or idling in residential neighborhoods, Vasque said. “We address those issues. For the most part, they’ve been very cooperative. We know they perform a vital function in the city, but at the same time, they need to adhere to city ordinances and be as quiet as possible and not bother residents.”

Almonte, who represents District A, questioned the owners responsiveness. When the licenses for the seven companies came up for renewal at a council meeting last week, she convinced the council to delay a vote until the owners come in. She said she is preparing a document outlining the rules of the road for cabbies and wants the owners of the 10 cab and livery companies and each of their drivers to sign it.

“Your medallion comes with conditions,” Almonte said.

The drivers have their defenders, including regular customers like Luis Perris, a 40-year-old city resident who cabs it across town to his job as a security guard “almost every day.”

“They’re friendly,” Perris said. “They have a nice conversation with you. I don’t have a problem. Sometimes it’s the customers who have been rude.”