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Taxis at Denver International Airport: How a cab shortage nearly stranded my family all night

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It was 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night as my family lugged our suitcases to Denver International Airport's taxi stand for a ride home after a week-long trip. While we'd always parked at DIA in the past, we'd decided to skip the hassle and take local cabs, the topic of my Westword feature "Mean Streets." But just as we got to the stand, the porter helped a woman into a taxi and then turned to us with a sad look. "I'm sorry, that was the last cab," he said. For the night.

While taxi service at the airport didn't officially end until after 1 a.m., the porter explained that all available cab drivers were downtown, angling for the Saturday-night business. He could call a taxi for us, but it could take half an hour or more for one to show up -- if it showed up at all. This happened nearly every weekend, he explained with a shake of his head.

"So what do people do?" I asked in bewilderment. The porter said he tries to find people a shuttle service or encourages them to rent a car. Some folks, however, end up spending the night sleeping in the concourse and getting a cab at 7 a.m. the next morning.

Before it came to such a choice for us, the porter tried one last option: He called the taxi stand on the other side of the concourse, to see if there happened to be any taxis over there. As it turned out, the real last cab of the night was idling there. It was great luck for us, although not so much for the passengers on the other two planes the porter said were still due in to DIA that night. If any of them expected (understandably) to be able to take a cab home, they'd be in for a very rude awakening.

What could be done about the situation? Before we left, I asked the porter if he thought it would make sense for DIA to increase the number of cabs allowed at DIA at one time, a restriction put in place a few years ago. "It would help," he said.

But our cab driver during our drive to Denver didn't think so. Even if the airport increased the maximum number of taxis allowed, he thought the drivers would still end up downtown on weekend nights, since that was where all the action was.

It made me think about the arguments used time and again to ensure that only a handful of new taxi companies have been allowed to open up shop in Denver in more than sixty years. The city just doesn't need any more cabs, insist both the existing cab companies and city politicians (many of whom, it turned out, have received political donations from the existing cab companies). Those arguments have long stymied the launch of Mile High Cab, a taxi collective envisioned by local taxi drivers who say they are sick of exorbitant lease rates and abusive treatment at the existing cab operations. After a two-year application process, Pubic Utilities Commission Judge Paul Gomez ruled allowing Mile High to operate would make the city dangerously overcrowded with cabs -- an argument he seemed to forget a little while later when he gave the green light to 300 other new cabs, including 150 for Yellow Cab, a large and powerful local company that has long argued Denver doesn't need any more taxis.

Whether those 300 controversial cabs will actually hit the streets is still under consideration, and Denver Mayor Bill Vidal, for one, is arguing that they shouldn't be allowed to do so. Like many other Denver officials, he believes additional cabs could be "divisive and explosive."

But here's a big question: If there aren't enough cabs to go around between downtown and DIA on any given weekend night, can it really be that Denver doesn't need any more taxis? For a city that prides itself on its glitzy airport, having visitors getting stranded at the concourse at 11:30 p.m. because they're just plum out of cabs is anything but world class.

As the taxi porter put it to me, "Makes you remember we still really are a cow town."

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Michael Hancock donations from Metro Taxi payback for opposing Mile High Cab?" Follow Joel Warner on Twitter @joelmwarner

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