Dallas Cabbies Are Taking Fight Over Natural Gas Taxis at Love Field to the Supreme Court

The scene at City Hall on the morning of January 27, 2011.
The scene at City Hall on the morning of January 27, 2011.
Patrick Michels

It's been more than three years since the City of Dallas first began moving CNG-powered cabs to the front of the line of taxis at Love Field. The protesters have long since vacated the City Hall plaza, and the city's attention has inevitably drifted. But through it all, the cabbies have never lost hope that their gas guzzlers might once again be allowed at the front of the queue, nor have they given up their legal fight, even after having their asses handed to them in federal court.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt their dreams a possibly fatal blow last week when a three-judge panel emphatically denied the appeal filed by the Association of Taxicab Operators, agreeing with the lower court's decision to grant the city's request for summary judgment.

The cabbies' argument always seemed a bit paradoxical. Their claim was that the city's decision to give preference to CNG taxis, which run cleaner than their traditional gas counterparts, was essentially a violation of the Clean Air Act. They homed in on a provision of the law that barred states and cities from adopting their own emissions standards -- this is the same one that California ran into trouble with a while back -- and argued that the front-of-the-line rule amounted to a de facto mandate to buy CNG taxis.

See also Whether City Hall's Worried or Not, Another Taxi Drivers' Strike Starts Today Cabbies' Suit Against Dallas and It's Love Field Line-Cutting Rule Tossed Out of Court Cabbies Say There's a Taxi Monopoly in Dallas, and They're Fighting to Break it Up

The Fifth Circuit summarizes:

The driver-affiants reported the head-of-the-line privilege had led to a rise in the number of CNG cabs servicing Love Field and had slashed business by as much as fifty percent for traditional cabs. By one ATO-member driver's count, forty-six CNG cabs operated at Love Field.5 As a result, they reported, some drivers of gasoline-powered taxicabs worked longer hours to make ends meet and were forced to weigh the expense of purchasing a CNG vehicle against the prospect of giving up their work altogether.

The court poked a number of holes in that argument. First, it points out that the CNG rule applies only to the 200 or so cabs (out of more than 2,000 licensed in the city) that regularly operate at Love Field. Furthermore, the city's not telling cabbies to go out and buy CNG cabs; it's simply providing a modest incentive for doing so. Finally, the Clean Air Act provision they cite is followed almost immediately by one explicitly allowing states and cities to pass regulations restricting pretty much everything except emissions standards.

All in all, the court writes, the impact of the rule hasn't been nearly as significant as the taxi drivers and their attorneys suggest.

Kelly Hollingsworth, an attorney representing the cab companies, thinks the court badly misjudged the impact of the CNG rule. It seems innocuous enough -- so what if a natural gas taxi or two gets to skip to the front of the line? -- but it's effectively put dozens of independent cabbies out of business. There are enough CNG taxis at Love Field that the driver of a traditional taxi can go a whole day without picking up a customer. And even when you count the hotels and convention centers and late-night bar pickups, "there is no place in Dallas for the drivers to replace this business," Hollingsworth says.

On a side note, Hollingworth takes issue with the assertion that the CNG rule was an attempt to make the airport greener. He points out that it made no provisions for other environmentally friendly vehicles like hybrids, which CNG cabs are allowed to pass. "This environmental thing is just a fig leaf," he says.

So, the cabbies are preparing to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, and he thinks the justices will agree that the city's CNG rule amounts to a clear preemption of federal law by a local government. That's assuming it's among the 5 percent or so of cases the high court decides to review.

Meanwhile, the cabbies' fight against the area's big cab companies, which they say have a monopoly, continues.

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