Declining car ownership in Maine may be a factor.

LEWISTON — At the largest cab company in the city, business has doubled in the past year. It’s so good, L-A Cab Service is adding four more taxis this winter.

“We’re seeing a giant trend with the same people day in and day out,” said General Manager Don Bouchard.

And it’s not just L-A Cab: Fares are booming across Lewiston.

In 2010, the city had four cab companies driving 15 cabs. Now, there are 10 companies and 34 cabs.

Four years ago, there were 58 licensed taxi drivers. As of last month, 199.

“We’ve got interesting things going on in the cab business,” said Ronald Goulette at Tri-Town Taxi.

Goulette, 61, has driven a cab off and on for more than 40 years. He puts in 16-hour days and calls it his working retirement. He talks about rumors of Uber driving around here (“totally illegal”) and encountering rogue metered cabs — drivers apparently drawn from away by the promise of constant business. He chased them off by complaining to city hall.

“They seem to have disappeared now,” said Goulette, with a big, throaty laugh. “I think I got rid of them.”

He didn’t have an easy answer for the increase in business and there doesn’t appear to be a single factor driving growth. More people don’t have or want cars, so more companies are saying hop in.

The number of cars registered as vehicles for hire, such as taxis, is up 30 percent in Maine in the past five years, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

While the state’s population has grown slowly, the number of registered cars is down 1 percent, signaling slightly less reliance on personal wheels. L-A bus ridership appears to support that trend, with 2014 reaching a historic high of 372,864, including a 20,000 jump in just the last year. In 2000, ridership was 127,531.

“At the end of the day, I think people are just looking for reliable transportation they can trust to pick them up on time and get them to where they’re going on time,” said Bouchard at L-A Cab, where that company’s fleet is about to grow to 15 from 11.

‘A game-changer’

Lewiston-Auburn cabs rely on a zone system — it costs so much to drive from point A to point B — based on rates set by the cities almost a decade ago.

If they want to change rates, cab companies must approach both city councils to make the case, where both councils then have to agree, and that hasn’t been done in a long while, said Phil Nadeau, Lewiston deputy city administrator. 

Unlike local tow truck drivers or landlords, taxi drivers haven’t organized into a united front, he said. Given the growth and the complexity of the zone system — “You never really know where the zones are unless you know where the zones are” — it may be time to revisit the fee structure and how it’s overseen, Nadeau said.

Both cities use an informal agreement to handle taxi licensing and inspection. Lewiston runs background checks on would-be drivers. If Lewiston green-lights a new taxi driver’s license, Auburn will follow suit. Auburn police head up cab inspection. If Auburn OKs a cab as road-worthy and meeting regulations, Lewiston will follow suit.

More than half of the cab businesses in Lewiston are one- and two-cab operations.

“Fifteen years ago, (that) was rare if it existed at all,” Nadeau said. “It couldn’t be supported because they needed dispatch.”

For the taxi business, “cellphones were a game-changer.”

‘You just scratch your head . . .’

Different companies have different niches, Bouchard said. Some go after larger contracts. He likes to focus on the individual rider going to work, the grocery store or the doctor. He estimated 99 percent of L-A Cab’s business is between the two cities.

“We have dozens and dozens of people that we have on a schedule where we pick them up at work, drop them off at work, every day,” Bouchard said. “What it costs (to own a vehicle) — $2,000 or $3,000 a year for insurance, plus your vehicle, gas, maintenance and everything — it is cheaper to find that alternate source of a taxi service. I’ve seen more and more couples getting away from that.”

Goulette, who said he’s driven a cab whenever there’s been a recession, does a variety of driving within the zones and Portland International Jetport runs. He avoids late nights and bars — too rowdy.

“I’ve built Navy ships and I’ve driven cabs,” he said. “I like either one about as much. I’d just like to be rich and retired, to be honest with you.”

It takes a certain temperament to get behind the wheel each day. Dealing with the public can be challenging. Some calls, especially after dark, can feel sketchy.

“Last year we were picking up some people, and a mile down the road, the police pulled us over and it turned out they were wanted felons,” Bouchard said. “They got arrested and pulled out of the cab immediately. They were trying to shove guns and drugs into the seats so they wouldn’t get caught with them. There are sometimes multiple incidents a year you just scratch your head — ‘Wow.'”

Goulette said he’s noticed that the longer you’re in business, the more time customers have to memorize your number, and the better you fare business-wise.

Ahmed Mohamed-Hassan, the owner of Red Sea Taxi, opened his company in August 2013 after borrowing money from family and buying two cabs. He’s now up to five and thinks the local market may have reached the point of being too crowded.

“I’m getting out from that business,” Mohamed-Hassan said. “I didn’t have enough business to survive. Mostly now my business is focused on MaineCare transportation.”

Soon he’ll become Red Sea Cab Transportation and focus on medical rides instead of traditional fares.

This is the season for taxi businesses and drivers to renew their licenses with city hall. (Taxi drivers’ licenses expired on Dec. 31, according to City Clerk Kathy Montejo. Businesses’ renewal bills are out now and due Feb. 28.) 

Bouchard said the owner of his company, Wilford Morrissette, started as a driver at City Cab before branching out on his own.

“He had a great idea,” Bouchard said. “Looking back, we started out with one cab. Now we’ve got 11 cabs and we’re growing to 15 this quarter. It’s just phenomenal.”

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Is Uber here? Not officially

On its website, the transportation company says its presence in Maine is limited to Portland.

But, “The Bates College kids told me that they are in this area,” said Ronald Goulette at Tri-Town Taxi in Lewiston. “I didn’t know it.”

Uber is a transportation company now in most major cities that has prompted protests from taxi companies and other traditional transportation providers. Uber uses contracted drivers using their own vehicles, allowing it to avoid some local licensing and regulatory requirements, thereby reducing costs.

The company says it carefully screens all drivers, carries substantial insurance and insists drivers use vehicles that meet company standards, but taxi companies in the U.S. and abroad say Uber’s ability to forgo local regulations and taxes makes for unfair competition and a greater potential for problems.  

Local licensing has a purpose, said Don Bouchard, general manager of L-A Cab Service, such as screening out felons, bad drivers and unsafe vehicles.

“Lewiston does a background check to make sure you’re not a pedophile or a criminal or somebody who’s going to put the public at harm,” he said. “Uber is growing so fast because there’s a need in communities for more taxis and more taxi service, so people are trying to jump on board without all the rest of the things going on.”


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