Montauk Taxi Situation 2013: 'Bad, Really Bad’

A driver for Pink Tuna cabs for the last 10 years, Mr. Sparks said the town had to do something to tighten regulations and either cap or reduce the number of permits it issues
Mike Sparks, a cab driver, told the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee that the town should tighten taxi regulations, while Norma Beck, the owner of Pink Tuna taxi company, looked on. Janis Hewitt

   The taxicab situation in Montauk was so out of control this season that the local cab companies and drivers are asking East Hampton Town officials for help.

    “It’s bad, it’s really bad,” Mike Sparks, a cab driver, told the members of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee on Monday.

    A driver for Pink Tuna cabs for the last 10 years, Mr. Sparks said the town had to do something to tighten regulations and either cap or reduce the number of permits it issues.

    Larraine Creegan, the executive director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, is part of a subcommittee formed in July to address cab complaints; Diane Hausman and Marilyn Behan, the chairwoman and secretary of the advisory committee, are the other members. Ms. Creegan reported on Monday that the three have only just begun to scratch the surface of the problems.

    “There is a lot of the law that we still need to delve into,” she said. “It’s been quite a learning curve.”

    But they have found that over 600 permits to operate in the Town of East Hampton were issued this year to cab drivers, about 35 of whom all used the same address to get by the town’s requirement that a local address be listed on the permit application.

    Ms. Creegan explained the difference between livery cabs and commercial cabs: Livery cabs are prohibited by state law from parking on the state highway, Route 27, and from soliciting or picking up random passengers who might try to wave them down, which often happened in Montauk. Livery vehicles are not allowed to operate in Southampton, so they all came out east, Ms. Creegan said.

    Bill Mavro, the owner of Montauk Clothing on Main Street, said he had a problem with cabs taking up parking spaces in the commercial lot behind his store, sometimes for hours with no one in them. Another business owner complained that the cabs were “commandeering” parking spaces on Main Street in front of other businesses. “This is a major situation here,” Mr. Mavro said.

    Paul Acevedo, the owner of Best Taxi, confirmed it, in a phone interview yesterday. “They are not only using the lot as a hub, but also working on vehicle maintenance there,” he said. And, he said, gypsy cab drivers park for the weekend in the Montauk Point State parking lot to sleep.

    “The only thing that can change this is East Hampton Town,” said Mr. Acevedo, who thinks the town should adopt Southampton’s laws. “They are very strict there, and it works,” he said, predicting things might improve if the town were to require background checks and drug testing, limit the number of vehicles per business, and enforce existing laws. Officials should meet with the local cab companies and work from the inside out, he said. “It can be corrected easier than they think. We would be more than willing to work with the town.”

    Other members of the advisory committee said cabs were driving maniacally, causing fights, and price-gouging customers. “It’s like an unregulated free-for-all,” said Lisa Grenci, the former chairwoman and a member. “If there’s 600 permits this year, there’s going to be 1,200 next year.”

    Local cab companies and drivers were reluctant to have their names published. One driver said the others might put sugar in his gas tank or flatten his tires in retaliation. Another said the outside cab companies were coming from UpIsland and Manhattan and did not follow the protocol that local cabs have unofficially established and get very aggressive when called out on it.

    They charge ridiculous prices, according to some. One driver told of five women who were driven to Gurney’s Inn at a cost of $20. When they were ready to return to downtown Montauk they grabbed a cab nearby and asked how much. The driver said $20. The women reportedly chipped in $24, including tip, and handed it over at their destination. The driver turned around and said it was $20 apiece and he wanted $100 for the fare.

    All the local cab drivers interviewed said the town had to tighten regulations and reduce the number of permits approved. One suggested that undercover officials jump in a gypsy cab and see what happens. Another said patrons should ask drivers for a receipt, which reportedly the gypsy cabs do not give.

    “They are ruining it for the rest of us,” one driver said. “Their prices are so high that no one tips anymore. Manhattan people just don’t tip. I used to love going to work and now it’s become a job.”

    The herds of cabs in downtown Montauk also contributed to the hamlet’s litter problem, he said. He blamed an article in a spring issue of French Vogue that called Montauk “the new St. Tropez.” “It’s a beautiful spot, the driver said, “but it’s not so beautiful anymore. There’s garbage everywhere.” He works the night shift and said the late-night weekend crowds spill out of the downtown gin joints tossing glasses, napkins, pizza boxes, and plastic cups all over the place. “It looks like a war zone the morning after.”

    Ms. Creegan said the subcommittee wanted to get it right before it makes any recommendations and it could take months. The advisory committee voted to ask the town to form a task force to look further into the situation, and to include Montauk residents.