Councilman Johnson kills "glitch" that benefitted Yellow Cab

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The Chronicle‘s Alexis Grant reports that a “miscommunication” has temporarily scuttled the city’s plan to allow door-to-door airport shuttle service:

Mayor Bill White said Wednesday the delay should only be temporary, and he expects the City Council to approve an amended contract in the next two months.

The five-year contract between the city and a SuperShuttle franchise run by Yellow Cab was scrapped because it would have prohibited vans that transport passengers directly between airports and hotels from continuing to operate at Houston airports.

That stipulation was not included in the city’s original request for shared-ride shuttle proposals.

“It was never our intention in this process that it would eliminate another type of service,” White said.


Councilman Jarvis Johnson, who noticed the contract glitch and brought it to White’s attention Tuesday, said both van services should exist to give passengers more options when traveling to the airport.


Richard Vacar, the city’s airport director, said allowing hotel-to-airport vans to continue to operate would decrease SuperShuttle’s odds for success.

He believed the City Council was aware of the stipulation in the contract that is now being disputed, he said.

“Starting this business up in this huge geographic area is an expensive effort,” he said. “What we we’re trying to do in the contract is give them a chance to succeed.”

Thank goodness Councilmember Johnson read the details of the contract before the city simply signed off on it. Had he not done so, the deal would have hurt firms like Texans Shuttle, which competes in the shuttle-hotel business, by effectively freezing them out of that business. Indeed, the details of the contract are so onerous that one wonders if SuperShuttle/Yellow Cab didn’t have a big hand in helping write the contract with Vacar.

It’s not the first time that Vacar has appeared to manipulate transportation arrangements to Yellow Cab’s benefit, as a 2004 Chronicle article by Ron Nissimov makes clear:

[I]it’s Yellow Cab’s investment in politics that the company’s critics say is also paying dividends.

Months before the recent shuttle controversy, [Texans Shuttle] filed a $15 million lawsuit claiming Yellow Cab and city officials concocted a story that Yellow Cab’s sister company, Airport Express, had an exclusive contract to serve major business centers inside the Loop.

After Texans Shuttle was kept out of the lucrative market for 10 months, Richard Vacar, the city’s aviation director, agreed that the contract with Airport Express was not exclusive, and in May 2003 Texans Shuttle was allowed to serve that area.

Vacar said the contract language was ambiguous.


[Texans Shuttle ownership] welcomed Vacar’s initial proposal for shared-ride shuttle service in August because he proposed using competitive bidding to hire two companies that don’t have Houston taxi permits, which would have given Texans Shuttle a much better chance to compete.

But one month later, after Yellow Cab fired off angry letters to officials that a city consultant underestimated the impact shuttles would have on the city’s taxi industry by $4 million a year, Vacar unveiled a plan that would virtually assure Yellow Cab one of the lucrative contracts.

The second proposal would guarantee one of the contracts to a taxi company, and only Yellow Cab has the resources to qualify to bid.

Vacar denies he is being influenced by Yellow Cab, saying he offered his second proposal to try to help the city’s cab industry, which has seen a 20 percent drop in business after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At best, Vacar’s inattention to detail with regard to airport transportation seems to be a recurring problem. At worst, the fact that these “glitches” and “ambiguities” always seem to benefit Yellow Cab makes Richard Vacar sound like a bureaucrat who’s grown a little too cozy with powerful interests that do business at the airports. Mayor White is always quick to criticize any hint of cronyism in municipal government. Perhaps it’s time for him to make it clear to Mr. Vacar that he needs to focus on the business of the people, and not the business of Yellow Cab.

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