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Despite tighter rules, Amherst taxi firms say illegal cabs persist

One of the cabs owned by John Santaniello, owner of Celebrity Cab Company in Amherst Tuesday morning.

CAROL LOLLIS One of the cabs owned by John Santaniello, owner of Celebrity Cab Company in Amherst Tuesday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

Scott Bellemore, owner of Aaron’s Paradise Transportation, said he has seen firsthand the problems that persist. Illegal cabs are flouting the rules by not being inspected by the town, while other vehicles are using livery license plates instead of the required taxi plates. Bellemore said town officials haven’t done enough to stop illegal cabs.

“Unlicensed taxis are still operating,” Bellemore said. “I’m to the point where my lawyer wants to take this to Boston.”

But Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said there is evidence that both the meters and regular inspections are working well to make cabs safer and more equitable for passengers. On Jan. 1, 2013, all cabs were required to have meters installed for charging fares, expanding a program in which vehicles were already being regularly inspected by both police officers and town staff to ensure they met cleanliness standards and various codes, such as having appropriate markings.

While Town Hall and police were once inundated with calls from irate customers, that’s no longer the case.

“It’s greatly reduced the number of complaints,” O’Keeffe said.

It’s also dramatically reduced the number of cab licenses with the town.

As of Jan. 1, there were 23 licensed cabs in Amherst, compared to 27 a year ago and 61 licensed in 2012.

“For the most part, cab companies are abiding by the new rules and regulations instituted,” said Police Chief Scott Livingstone. “The licencing process is weeding out companies that don’t want to abide by the rules.”

All drivers go through background checks before they are allowed to drive in Amherst.

Bellemore said he is frustrated that the nine companies licensed to operate in Amherst, which are legitimate businesses, aren’t being treated fairly because unregulated cabs are soliciting riders.

“Our taxis aren’t being protected,” Bellemore said.

While he runs five vehicles from offices in Northampton and Holyoke, Bellemore said he would add another 10 cars to his fleet if he had assurances about a level playing field.

O’Keeffe said the regulations bring a more professional atmosphere by assuring customers that if a meter is inside and a yellow sticker is affixed to the window, then they are getting a legitimate, inspected cab.

“It’s served the purpose of professionalizing, by and large, the taxi businesses,” O’Keeffe said.

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