The 2011 feature "Mean Streets" described allegations of discrimination and abuse at Yellow Cab, the city's oldest taxi company, as well as detailing taxi drivers' inability to find alternatives because the state's Public Utilities Commission made it nearly impossible to start new cab companies. But Denver could be one step closer to a new taxi operation thanks to a Colorado Supreme Court decision yesterday that found the PUC didn't have adequate reason to deny a 2010 application for 150 licenses by local drivers to start Mile High Cab.
Cabdriver Edem "Archie" Archibong, a driving force behind Mile High Cab, is excited about the Supreme Court decision. But he adds, "These thoughts are long overdue. Everyone in Denver knew the PUC messed up. Royally."
Under Colorado law, taxis are a regulated and protected public service. That's why for years, entrepreneurs behind a potential new cab company who wanted to get a license had to prove to the PUC that there was a public need for their service and that they wouldn't put existing operators out of business. This is an extremely high bar; over the past half century, only two new cab companies have been permitted to operate in Denver.
In 2008, state legislation shifted the burden of proof to existing cab companies, which would have to show conclusively that the market couldn't bear new companies to block one from starting. It seemed the perfect time for drivers to apply to launch Mile High Cab.
But in August 2009, Paul Gomez, a PUC administrative law judge, rejected Mile High's application -- and the PUC commissioners agreed. While Gomez found Mile High Cab financially fit to operate, he argued in his decision that Mile High's proposed 150 cabs would prove to be destructive to the existing cab carriers -- Yellow Cab, Metro Taxi, Freedom Cabs and Union Taxi -- because the market couldn't handle more taxis.
But in March 2011, the argument didn't stop Gomez from approving 300 other Denver cabs -- 150 for a new company called Liberty Taxi, and 150 for a Colorado Cab, a division of Yellow Cab, which had long opposed Mile High and other upstarts on the premise that Denver's taxi market is saturated.
At the time, Yellow Cab was in the midst of legal arbitration over a lawsuit that claimed the company had discriminated against 21 past and present Yellow Cab drivers, all African immigrants. Among other things, the original lawsuit claimed Yellow Cab supervisors called them "nigger," "African monkey," "dumb African," "crazy Somali" and "animal." In March 2012, the arbitrator concluded the drivers had been seen "as inferior...from an inferior country located in an inferior continent," and found in their favor -- to the tune of more than $1.3 million.
Meanwhile, those who'd applied to launch Mile High Cab as an alternative to companies like Yellow Cab were working to appeal their rejection with the help of University of Denver law professor Tom Russell. They started a website -- Mile High Cab blogspot -- that featured a counter listing the number of days that had passed since they'd first applied to open their business. And yesterday -- as the counter hit 1,683 days -- they finally scored a victory. In a unanimous decision, Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Yellow Cab and Metro Taxi, which opposed Mile High's licenses, hadn't adequately proved the new company would be detrimental to the public interest. The justices have sent the Mile High's application back to the PUC "for further action consistent with this opinion."
Russell, for one, is happy with how everything turned out, especially considering he worked hand in hand on the appeal with the organization Institute for Justice. "I'm a left liberal law professor, and they're a libertarian public interest law firm. So we are kind of miles apart politically, but it was a really nice combination in the fight for economic justice." Russell also points out that tech company Uber is currently working to get a smartphone app approved in Colorado that would allow people to electronically hail limo drivers like they do taxis. "Obviously, I think the PUC should be getting the message that people in Denver need more choices in their transportation options."
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But while Archibong believes that because of this Supreme Court ruling, "Sooner or later, Mile High Cab will be a cab company in Denver," Russell isn't so sure. "I am nervous the PUC will think what it needs to do is rewrite their denial using the language the Supreme Court is suggesting," he says.
Meanwhile, the counter on Mile High's website continues to advance -- 1,685 days and counting.
More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive circa March 2012: "Yellow Cab takes a hit in arbitrator's decision on racism case."