KEVIN WILLIAMS NEVER THOUGHT he’d be a chauffeur, much less run a limo company. “I was an actor, working here and in Vancouver. A buddy of mine had a limo company, and he kept trying to get me to work.” Finally, in 1997, Williams relented. “I drove a lady who was in remission from cancer, her two daughters, and her best friend out on the town to celebrate. It was a fascinating insight into human life. Through that little divider, you hear everything.”
Williams went on to drive every sort of passenger in the limousine lexicon, from congressmen to enraptured “85-year-olds who’ve never been in a limousine before and can’t stop playing with the LED lights” to the punch-throwing drunken newlyweds he had to break apart. “I wish I could have driven some bachelorette parties when I was 18,” he says. “It’s like driving around Sex in the City.”
This month, Williams gets to eavesdrop on another rite of passage: prom night, the limo-industry equivalent of Mother’s Day in the brunch business. So will the drivers who now work for him, along with hundreds of others across the city. He’s a partner in one limo company and the owner of another, Seattle Green Limo, with a special mission and angle: All its cars, two Mercedes sedans, two Ford Excursion SUVs, and a stretch limo, run on B99 biodiesel—99 percent recycled vegetable oil. “I could power an entire fleet off Microsoft’s French fries!” he crows.
Driving greener seems to be good marketing: “People love a little luxury, turning events into occasions—and knowing they’re doing it with vegetable oil, reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent. I’m booking cruise ships like crazy. Other customers would love to go green and use our services, but they need to know that we have enough cars.” And there’s the problem. Williams could field more bio-limos if he deigned to join the hundreds of rogue limo drivers operating with near impunity in Seattle. He wants to play by the rules, but it seems that the rules—which have proved powerless to stop unlicensed, unsafe, and uninsured chauffeurs—just won’t let him.
For two decades, until the recession slowed it down, Seattle’s limousine business grew like Topsy. What had been a rarified ride for dignitaries and the very rich became a favorite accessory for every sort of occasion. Chauffeured luxury sedans—most often black Lincoln Town Cars—came to be called limos, and became ubiquitous urban transport for corporate guests and other passengers deemed too elite for ordinary cabs.
Beyond their differences of luxury and exclusivity, taxis and limos operate under very different rules. Taxis are allowed to pick up unscheduled “stand and hail” passengers, whereas limos may only make prearranged pickups. Taxi fares are metered and closely regulated by the city and county, which charge operators stiff license fees and which field inspectors to make sure they follow the rules.
Limousines used to be regulated by the city and county, but in 1987 their operators lobbied successfully to go under the authority of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), which regulates buses and other large vehicles. Then, in 1996, the limo companies headed off an attempt by Seattle and other municipalities to tax them. Instead, the legislature agreed to put them under the authority of the state’s licensing department—which, unlike the city and UTC, didn’t regulate transportation operators and doesn’t have staff to police them.
The result has been a feast of unintended consequences—a free-for-all that Williams calls “the Wild West.” Legit limo operators, cabdrivers, and port and city officials all tell stories about pirate limos that cruise the streets poaching fares from taxis and legal limos. Rogue drivers perch at a gas station by Sea-Tac, cellphones in hand, waiting to swoop in and pick up passengers along the concourse—contrary to port rules, which make drivers get special licenses and wait in a designated corner of the parking garage for their reserved customers. They swarm the cruise ship, ferry, and Victoria Clipper terminals when ships arrive, soliciting fares while taxi drivers—required by law to stay within a few feet of their vehicles—watch helplessly. “They grab at suitcases and elbows,” says Denise Movius, Seattle’s revenue and consumer affairs director. “We’ve had several complaints.People coming through that barrage are afraid—especially women.”
Williams says one operator is notorious for double-booking proms—ditching passengers at their first stop and racing off to get another party. Some drivers poach passengers who’ve already prepaid other operators (“Yes, I’m your driver, let’s go”), then insist on cash. The customers complain—insult on top of injury—to the companies that lost the fares. (It’s not surprising tourists and other passengers are confused; instead of prominent markings or license plates, the state just issues small bumper stickers to identify limos.)
One operator is notorious for double-booking proms—ditching passengers at their first stop and racing off to get another party.
The economic down-turn has spurred even more frenzied competition for a shrunken pool of fares. For taxi drivers seeking to leave the big cab companies and strike out on their own, and for hardscrabblers with scanty capital and few marketable skills, limo driving can be alluring. Seattle and King County have stopped issuing new taxi licenses (aside from a batch of new Priuses the city allowed in 2008 to green the fleet). This has driven the value of a license as high as $150,000 on the open market, and the city requires that cabs be retired after seven years to ensure safety. But a limo driver can lease or buy an aged surplus town car from the vast black fleets back East and hit the streets with minimal outlay.
One legal operator, who asked to withhold his name because “I know all these guys,” charges $55 to $65 to drive to the airport. He says outlaws make the run for as little as $35 and kick back at least $10 to a hotel doorman or parking valet for the referral. “I don’t know how they can do it.”
The outlaws survive in part by making their town cars double as family cars, and by forgoing insurance. Even some licensed operators—more, in the current tough climate—drive without insurance; others pile more than 14 passengers, the legal maximum, into their stretch SUVs, invalidating their coverage. Craig Leisy, Seattle’s consumer affairs manager, says he’s heard from insurance brokers about limo operators who take out the coverage required to secure a state license, and then cancel as soon as they’re licensed. The vast majority of drivers, notes Leisy, are decent hardworking sorts—mostly immigrants, like the cabdrivers—with limited options. But with enforcement so porous, dangerous characters may also get behind the wheel. City taxi inspectors spotted one registered sex offender whose taxi license they’d pulled driving a limo.
The Department of Licensing has no enforcement staff in Seattle or King County, where nearly 80 percent of the state’s 852 legally licensed limos, and hundreds more unlicensed freebooters, operate. Even on the rare occasions when DOL pursues transgressors, their rules require that inspectors conduct time-consuming sting operations, riding in the illegal limos first and then sending their paperwork over to the Attorney General’s office for processing. As a result, DOL spokesperson Christine Anthony acknowledges, “it can take some time” to punish the few violators actually caught. “A year,” complains Kevin Williams, who’s sent in photos of egregious practices only to see nothing done.
For operators like Williams trying to play by the rules, the regulatory web can seem suffocating. The Mercedes E320s he uses are the largest sedans available with diesel (i.e., biodiesel) engines. With their wood trim, head-spinning array of comfort controls, and $50,000-plus list prices, their luxury status seems clear; at an official average 26 miles per gallon of veggie diesel (Williams says he gets 29), their eco-credentials are as good as luxury gets. But under state rules drafted by the limo lobby and adopted in 1996, they’re two inches under the minimum wheelbase for “executive sedans” that can legally be used as limos—a threshold that excludes just about every current sedan except the Lincoln Town Car and largest Cadillac.
Williams says he nevertheless managed to get three Mercedes approved by the State Patrol, which inspects vehicles for the Department of Licensing. Then, in late April, the Patrol rejected a fourth as undersized. He says he’s seen Lexuses and other models that are even shorter get approved. Ray Norris, the chief inspector at the Patrol’s Tukwila inspection station, doubts that would happen: “We check with a tape measure and only pass the ones that meet the criteria. Now we’re human, and sometimes a new person might let something through. But we try to catch it.” Williams says smart operators take dodgy cars to outlying Patrol stations unfamiliar with the limo rules—“Yakima’s a favorite”—for approval.
The Port of Seattle also inadvertently makes life harder for the small limo operators by requiring that all drivers get chauffeur certification. It allows the larger companies that make up the Puget Sound Limousine Association to do their own training, using an accredited video. But other drivers must take King County’s taxi-driving course. Much of the course work—such as reading taxi meters—is irrelevant to limo driving. And the mandatory schedule—Monday and Tuesday classes, testing on some ensuing Wednesday—is a hurdle for drivers, most of whom go to school or hold other jobs.
Williams says the burdensome schedule makes it hard for him to hire and certify qualified drivers. “So call in sick!” laughs city licensing manager Leisy. “Take some days off. That’s what you do when you’re trying to get a new job.”
City Hall nevertheless longs to crack down on the unlicensed, uninsured drivers. Last year it tried and failed to persuade the legislature to give it back authority to regulate the limo business. Before the last legislative session, city, state, and port officials and the Limousine Association worked out a compromise bill: The state would stay in charge, but the city, which already has inspectors on the ground, would get authority and funding (by raising license fees, which now run just $40 a year per operator, plus $25 per limo) to enforce the state rules. It sailed through the House and seemed poised to do likewise in the Senate.
Then Williams and other independent operators launched a last-minute lobbying counterattack, arguing that the new scheme would cost them too much and do nothing about their problems. Williams, with his actor’s gift of gab, made an effective lobbyist. The bill died in the Senate.
This summer, the various players will try to work out a new compromise, somehow assuaging the anxious independents. Maybe they’ll even find a way to accredit a posh Mercedes as an “executive sedan.” Meanwhile, prom night and cruise ship season are under way, and rogue drivers are revving their engines.