Eco-friendly taxis stuck in bureaucratic traffic.
Where environmentalists see a hole in the ozone layer, Rached "Rush" Merheb sees a hole in the market.
In January, the owner of Star Limousine, a high-end limousine-and-town-car service in Albuquerque, began the process of launching Santa Fe's first hybrid-vehicle taxicab service: Green Taxi. His theory is that Santa Feans are unusually eco-friendly and, given the choice between a Ford Crown Victoria, the industry standard, and a hybrid vehicle such as the Toyota Prius, many wouldn't hesitate to go the greener route.
"We're in the transportation business and we want to be able do something-we'll be consuming less fossil fuels and reduce our emissions and we'll be improving our bottom line," Merheb tells SFR. "We're not just talking the talk, we want to be able to drive the talk."
The problem, Merheb says, is that New Mexico's existing cab companies don't like competition.
Under state law, anyone seeking to start a cab company must apply for a license through the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. The PRC is mostly concerned with safety issues and financial liabilities and, assuming the paperwork is in order, the license application would make it before the five-member commission relatively quickly.
However, the rules also require applicants to alert their would-be competitors. Those competitors then have the opportunity to "intervene" by filing objections with the PRC's Transportation Division. According to Transportation Division Director Ronald Martinez, this can stall the process for months.
So far, at least three companies-Albuquerque Cab, Yellow-Checker Cab and Capital City Cab-have filed objections to Merheb's application.
Capital City Cab, Santa Fe's sole taxi operator, which also operates the Sandia Shuttle Express service between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, is the most prolific in its complaint, filing close to 200 pages in briefs and affidavits.
"The asserted use of hybrids by the applicant here is no more than a gimmick to get its foot in the door," Capital City Cab's attorneys write in their brief to the PRC, pointing out that so far Merheb has yet to purchase any hybrid vehicles.
Merheb says it's only natural to wait until the application is closer to approval. He plans to start with three cars, either Toyota Priuses or Ford Escapes, which will pick up passengers only in Santa Fe, but will drive them anywhere in the state. Eventually, he hopes car manufacturers will release a hybrid passenger van.
Capital City Cab says that it has considered hybrid vehicles for "several years," but between purchase and maintenance, they are still prohibitively expensive.
The company's owner, Matthew Knowles, argues in his written testimony to the PRC that Capital City Cab is also "green," since it uses TerraPass, the same system used and promoted by former Vice President Al Gore, to off-set its carbon emissions by investing in clean energy.
Knowles could not be reached for comment prior to press time.
Merheb argues that carbon off-setting doesn't guarantee that New Mexicans will see the benefit.
"They might be under the impression that it is a green operation they're partaking in, but it's more a 'green washing,'" Merheb says. "It is not fixing the source in the immediate area, where we live and our families live and where we breathe the air." He is hoping Santa Fe residents write to the PRC by June 19 to encourage approval of his business.
Without knocking carbon off-setting, Gail Ryba, director for the New Mexico Coalition of Clean Affordable Energy, says she prefers, at least conceptually, a hybrid taxi service.
"Well, I wouldn't say [hybrids and carbon off-setting] are equivalent," Ryba says. "I would argue that maybe we should require cabs to be hybrids, because the stop-and-go driving of an urban cab is optimal for hybrids."
Indeed, major cities like New York and Chicago have seen a steady increase in the number of hybrid cabs on the street.
Green or not, as far as Capital City Cab's lawyers interpret the law, eco-friendliness doesn't constitute a market demand. They say there isn't room for another taxi service, and they would have to lay off as many as three drivers if Green Taxi is approved.
"We have completely different business models," Merheb counters, noting that because Capital City Cab is an on-call service, and his would be a flag-down service, the businesses wouldn't be in direct competition. Plus, with the Rail Runner project, the new Santa Fe convention center and a new hotel under construction in Pojoaque, there should be plenty of business for all.
"According to the law, it's their right to voice their opinions," Merheb says of Capital City Cab. "But that doesn't necessarily mean their opinion is right."