Taxi companies lose certificates: Pandemic thins cab ranks even as demand grows

  • Two taxis pass each other on Kamehameha Avenue in Downtown Hilo. (Hawaii Tribune-Herald/File Photo)

“Bradley Hollister, dba Paradise Taxi!” “Luana Limousine, dba Laura’s Taxi!” “Shaka Taxi!” “Kelly Does Kona LLC, dba World’s Coolest Cab!”

One by one, their names were called out in the mostly empty auditorium. The few members in the audience looked at each other, shook their heads and occasionally spoke up.

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“Oh, he moved to the mainland,” said one of the survivors.

“They closed permanently,” came the answer to another name.

On it went during Thursday’s meeting of the Transportation Commission. It continued until 50 names of taxicab companies were called out. Of those, 44 taxi owners’ certificates were revoked on the spot, either because they hadn’t operated as common carriers transporting passengers in the past 30 days or they’d let their taxi certificates expire without renewing them, and they weren’t present to plead their case.

Owners of the six companies granted a reprieve Thursday had various reasons for not being current on their licenses. Several said they’d tried to renew, but the office for the Mass Transit Agency was closed because of coronavirus precautions, or their renewals and payments were returned to them without explanation.

“I need this. I need to work,” Fay Inocencio pleaded, facing what looked like a revocation vote by the commission. She showed the commission secretary her taxi certificate renewal and change of ownership application for Kona-based J&L Taxi that she’d tried to submit last year when her daughter, who owned the company, moved to Canada for a better job.

Commissioners gave Inocencio 30 days to get her paperwork in order to keep her certificate. Four other companies also were given 30 days and a sixth had her renewal application approved.

Taxi companies were already reeling from increased competition from ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft when they were dealt the next blow: an almost total shutdown of the economy by the coronavirus. The companies are by and large small mom-and-pop operations, with one or two taxicabs each.

“COVID hit people really hard. … People moved out of the area. People moved to the mainland. Someone died,” said Transportation Commission Chairman Michael O’Loughlin. “Now there’s a shortage of taxis, a shortage of rental cars and transit (the Hele-On bus system) isn’t operating the way it’s supposed to. We need to do something.”

O’Loughlin hadn’t seen such a long list of revocations. But then again, the commission hadn’t met since April, 2019, so some of the revocations might have been holdovers from pre-pandemic times.

The commission also approved three new certificates and postponed action on four applications for new certificates because a representative for the company wasn’t at the meeting.

The little band of taxi owners, who seemed to know each other, huddled outside at the end of the meeting, exchanging information. They appeared an optimistic lot.

Things have been much better lately, said Brandon Henson, who runs BH Taxi out of Hilo.

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He also works as a shuttle driver for a commercial shuttle company and said the tourism economy is definitely improving, especially at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. It’s a good gig to pick up riders at the Kona airport and ferry them the 25 miles to Waikoloa, he said.

“Business is picking up,” Henson said, “especially on the Kona side.”

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