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Regulating Limos. Taxis Next?

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By David McCabe

The way some limousine owners on the East End describe it, they are at war for the very survival of their business, facing down operators from outside the area and strict licensing rules from other counties.

Now, however, county officials say they are preparing to create a Suffolk County Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) which could make life a little easier for those limo operators and have an effect on East End consumers as well. New regulations may also pave the way for regulating taxi service on the East End.

County Legislator Ed Romaine, who helped to craft the county’s request to the State Senate and Assembly for the authority, said that in addition to protecting businesses, the Suffolk TLC will raise revenue for the county from the sale of limousine medallions.

“We could issue medallions, make additional revenue for the county, and protect these guys’ businesses,” he said

Romaine, who represents the North Fork, said he decided to pursue the creation of the commission because limo drivers from his district who were dropping off clients in New York City were having their vehicles impounded when they tried to take fares back. Because these limo drivers lacked either licenses from the New York City TLC or a Commission that has a reciprocity agreement with the New York TLC, they could not legally pick up clients in New York City.

He is hoping that Suffolk County’s TLC, which is going to be run through the Consumer Affairs Bureau, can reach a reciprocity agreement with surrounding counties that make it possible for Suffolk County’s limousines to drop off their customers almost anywhere between Montauk and Manhattan.

The more pressing concern, limo owners say, is that they cannot make drop offs in Nassau County without a TLC license from that county. Companies based outside of Nassau County must pay between $300 and $350 to obtain a Nassau license, according to Rizzo Assouad, the owner of Twin Forks Limousine, which is based in East Hampton and Southampton.

“If the kids in Sag Harbor want to go to a prom or a concert in Nassau, I can’t take them,” Assouad said. “That’s not fair.”

Suffolk County’s lack of a TLC, owners say, makes it possible for anyone to operate a limousine business without paying attention to safety precautions. Because many of these operators come from outside the county, Assouad said, there is no way for the consumer to file a complaint about poor service or safety concerns.

“Right now in Suffolk County it’s a free for all,” he said.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who helped shepherd the request through the State legislature, said that the additional regulations placed on the limousine operators could reduce costs for consumers because limo owners will not have to buy expensive Nassau county licenses, reducing overhead for some companies.

Some limousine owners are less bullish on the idea of a TLC, saying buying the medallions will add to their overhead and not provide them with much in return.

“It’s just a government regulation that is requiring more fees,” said Thomas Hill, owner and founder of East End Limousine in Bridgehampton.

Hill is no stranger to the perils of operating without a TLC license: a few years ago, one of his cars was impounded upon making a drop off in Nassau County. Hill said he was unaware of the licensing requirements at the time.

“We just have to adhere to change, and get used to it,” he said. “It’s one of those things you just have to adapt to.”

Visitors to the East End might also reap benefits from the TLC in the form of more tightly regulated taxis. Currently, taxi companies on the East End are not required to submit to regular safety inspections or certain fare schedules.

The Express called three taxi companies on Friday, asking how much it would cost for one person to go from The American Hotel on Main St. to the train station in Bridgehampton at 1:30 in the afternoon. Sag Harbor Taxi wanted $20, Midway wanted $25 and Sag Harbor Car service fell in the middle, asking for $21.

However, Romaine said that he wants to tackle the limousine regulations first, and then deal with the much larger taxi industry.

“We are going to crawl before we walk,” he said, before noting that he wanted to help reduce taxi costs for his constituents that use them regularly.

“I know a number of my constituents are elderly and can’t drive and a number of my constituents who are poor rely on taxis,” he said.

County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who represents the South Fork, said he would like to see taxi regulation in the near future — expressing concerns that residents who rely on public transportation can run into trouble when buses stop running at night.

“People get stranded, they have no choice [but to take cabs],” he said.

“I certainly want to work with the companies to come up with a fare schedule — I don’t want to put them out of business — but I think there is some regulation that’s overdue there.