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Wed March 2, 2011
The Cap on Taxis in Downtown Wilmington: Part I
By Roderick McClain
03-02-11 – Of the nearly 200 taxis operating in the Wilmington area, 155 are licensed to work within a five-mile radius of downtown. The license, or W-number, means a driver can patrol streets heavy with foot-traffic in search of flag down fares.
Drivers without W-numbers can work at the airport and the beaches, but they can't, even if crowds are overflowing, pick up clients downtown.
WHQR's Roderick McClain rode along in a late-night, non-W-number taxi and has this account.
"Do you need a cab, sir?"
That's Josh Price of Price is Right Taxi. He's got his first fare of the night.
"Would you be willing to take me and my friends downtown?
"Yeah, sure. How many people?"
"Okay, no problem. Nice way to start the day. Downtown run from Wrightsville Beach."
On weekends Price punches the clock at eight thirty or nine.
"Usually I just float around until I see how things are at different bars. Just kind of sit and wait."
When Price started his company last year, the waitlist for W-numbers was so long he didn't bother. Without that precious number, he can only pick up clients at the airport and the beaches.
There is no official map identifying exactly where non-W-number taxis can and cannot operate, but it's clear that Front Street, where he stops to let passengers unload, is off-limits.
"All right. Here we are."
"How much change you want back, sir?"
"Um, let's do ten."
"Here's two fives."
"Great, thanks man."
"Thank you. Have a nice night."
Price heads back to the beach where he knows he can find his regular clients.
Over the next few hours, Price makes similar trips, transporting sloshed partygoers around the outskirts of Wilmington, avoiding city streets.
The cap on W-numbers hasn't changed since 2005, when Wilmington City Council bumped it from 130 to 155. Price says it's time for the city to re-examine taxi ordinances.
"I say open up the W-numbers and let capitalism take its course. The companies that don't have the clientele, that have crummy drivers, that don't keep their vehicles clean, and don't keep their vehicles well-maintained, let them die."
A W-number from the city costs $15 a year, but the waitlist is years long.
If Price wanted to buy a W-number, he'd have to purchase a whole company--vehicle, phone number, and all. The process is complicated, and the cost of a W-number sold privately can reach four or five thousand dollars even if he re-sold the vehicle to the seller.
After bars close, business gets steady, and passengers are rowdy, inebriated.
A Wrightsville Beach police officer parks beside a crowd of people parting ways for the night. He says they can ride in the taxi if they get in quickly, but otherwise they can ride with him. Price's last four clients are slow to react, but they make it. One passenger's directions come in a jumble.
"It's right on the left-right-left. Right here."
"You got that? You sure?"
"Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. That's the house."
After delivering the last batch of bleary-eyed night owls, Price spots another cab, idling just off the road.
"Let me see if this driver is okay. You okay?"
"Yeah. We had to stop. She had to throw up."
"I figured that."
After deducting operating costs like gas, insurance, and licensing, Price has about $100 to show for the night. There's no telling what he'd make if he could pick up customers downtown.
With the workday now over, Price points the headlights towards a 24-hour diner, where he unwinds with other cabbies, counting cash and recounting the night. Roderick McClain, WHQR News.
Tune in next Wednesday during Morning Edition and All Things Considered to hear the second part of WHQR's series about the cap on taxis operating in downtown Wilmington.
Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the WHQR News Team.