The Cars of St. Bonifacius
Head west on Highway 7 past Excelsior about 35 miles from Minneapolis, cross the rails put in place a century ago by the Great Northern Railroad, and you'll be in St. Bonifacius, population 1180. Immediately off to the right across a grassy ditch is the St. Boni Farm Store, which Tom Logelin's father started in 1932 as a feed and seed store and Logelin has continued as an appliance outlet. Logelin--a dignified man with a shock of wavy gray hair and an "I'd Rather Be Fishing" belt buckle that explains his nut-brown tan--gracefully winds up a dishwasher demonstration before approaching another potential customer.
"Oh, yeah, the taxicab thing," he says when informed of the visitor's question. "We register more damn taxis out here than any other place around. We always know it's that time of the year--October or November--because there are a stream of taxis stopping here, asking for directions." But this year may see the last time Logelin leaves his sea of white Whirlpools to gesture the way to city hall (up the hill and to the right). If state regulators have their way, St. Boni will have to gear up its bureaucracy, or forsake its unlikely status as the metro's taxicab capital.
First, some numbers. A decade ago, according to city hall estimates, St. Bonifacius had only about 50 licensed cabs. But in the last few years, cabdrivers around the metro area have found out that Logelin's directions lead them to one of the best license deals around: $50 per car per year, compared with more than $300 in St. Paul and $400 in Minneapolis. Airport cabdrivers, who have to be licensed with a metropolitan city in order to receive a permit, have been taking notice. In 1998, 390 cars--more than two-thirds of all airport cabs--were licensed in St. Bonifacius. That's roughly one cab for every three people in St. Bonifacius, for a total number that edges out the 343 registered cabs in the city of Minneapolis, and eclipses the 124 licensed by St. Paul.
Minneapolis taxicab inspector Mike Rumppe says he's not surprised cab operators are looking for alternatives: In most large cities, the number of licenses is limited by statute. "To get a cab license, you have to buy it from someone who already has one," Rumppe explains. "The going rate--fair market value with city approval on the sale--is $18,000." Both Minneapolis and St. Paul also require twice-yearly mechanical inspections, as well as criminal-history and driving-record checks for taxi operators.
And so, just as merchant ships around the world fly the flags of Liberia and Panama, cabdrivers flock to the regulatory haven of St. Bonifacius. "It's simple," says Phyllis Bacon, the town's assistant clerk. "They show us proof of ownership--a title, insurance--and proof that the vehicle has been inspected for safety. As long as they have those things, we can give them the license." Once Bacon or her co-workers sign off on the paperwork, she acknowledges, most cabdrivers are not seen again inside the St. Boni city limits until it's time for their annual renewal, usually in late fall.
Hamid Pardaz, who drives for an Apple Valley-based company called Aspen Travel Taxi, has licensed his cab in St. Bonifacius for four years. The shiny blue Ford Taurus soaks up the sun as Pardaz waits for his number--A07 Aspen--to appear on a digital board in the city hall parking lot. He has rolled down the windows, kicked off his shoes, and unfurled a Farsi newspaper. When a visitor approaches, he puts the paper down with a broad smile: "Our great poet, Ahmad Shamloo, was just nominated for a Nobel Prize," he beams, pointing to a postage stamp-sized picture.
Pardaz, who's originally from the northern part of Iran, says he found out about St. Boni from the other drivers who idle their cabs in a parking lot near the airport between fares. "When I first started going to St. Boni, city hall was in a house," he recalls. "Now they have a new city hall. I don't want to assume things, but seems like they make a lot of money." Indeed, the city's 390 cabs provide a total of $19,500, or eight percent of the city's annual revenue, according to Brenda Fisk, the town's city clerk and treasurer, who says that St. Boni "uses the taxi money every year to reduce our general tax levy. It's really hard, especially in a small town, to get [revenues] in to reduce your taxes."
St. Bonifacius wasn't always a taxi town. The area was settled in the 1850s by German immigrants, among them Tom Logelin's grandfather, and Logelin serves as the community's unofficial historian. At one point, he boasts, "we were a hub of commerce for the surrounding area. Much bigger than Mound, Excelsior, Waconia." The locally headquartered Minnetonka Canning Company "was the biggest cannery west of the Mississippi. Every canned good on the Great Northern came from St. Boni."
But the advent of the automobile changed all that, Logelin says, allowing people to travel further for their errands and cutting into business on Main Street. Car travel also hurt the rail business, which put the pinch on Minnetonka Canning. The firm shut down its assembly lines during the Depression. "Isn't it ironic?" Logelin asks, in an oratory style used most recently when he spoke at the local Memorial Day service. "Whereas in the old days the development of the automobile started the demise of St. Boni, today's great income is from the automobile."
Now, St. Boni is gearing up for another blow from the fickle motor car: This spring, Minnesota legislators passed a provision that makes it more difficult for cities to license taxicabs. The goal, explains Ward Briggs, director of the state Department of Transportation's office of motor carriers, was to create a statewide safety standard. "Whether you're in St. Boni, St. Paul, or Fergus Falls, passengers ought to have some assurance that the drivers are qualified and, if they are, that the vehicles are safe," he says. The legislation, Briggs explains, requires cities to put more regulatory muscle behind their taxi licensing, to "at a minimum, provide for driver qualifications, insurance, vehicle safety, periodic vehicle inspections."
Fisk, the St. Boni clerk-treasurer, says she doesn't know much about the provision or what the city may do in response. Technically, she says, vehicles could be inspected at one of the two automotive dealers in town. "But that's not for me to decide. The council might decide not to do taxicab licenses at all."
If St. Boni chooses to get out of the licensing business, there won't be any complaining from another metro city named for a saint. Though St. Paul didn't actively lobby for the licensing legislation, taxicab license inspector Troy Gilbertson says that, in his view, the large numbers of taxis licensed by St. Bonifacius choke off business for city cabbies: "Our cabs end up deadheading--they can take a ride out [to the airport] and they don't get a fare back. And it has negative effects. A St. Bonifacius driver is not as familiar with the city, but a visitor will associate a bad driver with St. Paul."
In fact, says Pardaz, St. Boni licensees are not necessarily strangers to St. Paul: He, for one, goes home each night to the Highland Park neighborhood. But, Pardaz says, he won't be able to land one of the limited, and costly, taxi licenses in his home town anytime soon. If St. Boni is no longer an option, he ventures, "maybe we can go to another city."
Indeed, several metro cities including St. Louis Park and Bloomington don't have caps on the number of taxicab licenses. But their price structure--an annual fee for each company and an additional charge for each vehicle--tends to favor larger operators. "What we've gotten is the little men, the ones that aren't one big conglomerate taxi company," notes St. Boni's Phyllis Bacon. "They might own one taxi; a few might own as many as four."
But no company, regardless of size, actually does regular runs to St. Bonifacius. Sherm Junker will say as much--right after showing a visitor his treasure, the original crossbar from the goal post at the old Met Stadium. Junker dragged the relic back to Sherm's, the Main Street bar he has owned and operated since 1977, after the last game at the Met in 1981.
The tenacious ingenuity that brought the crossbar to St. Boni is currently at work putting together transportation for local bar patrons who require a ride home. Junker says he's tried to use established taxi companies, but one required a $30 minimum to pick up a fare in St. Boni, and the other--well, "let's just say it didn't work out."
"It'd be great to have cab service out here," Junker adds, lighting a Swisher Sweet. "But we're a little too sparsely populated for that. Cabdrivers can't be expected to drive 20 or 30 miles over here and get five bucks for their trouble. People have to be able to make a living." So Junker recently took matters into his own hands. He hired a friend, who drives his car to pick up bar-goers in St. Boni and in a few other nearby towns, courtesy of Sherm's. No one is charged anything, and there's no taxicab license involved.
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