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Pittsburgh Yellow Cab to pick up more services for 100th anniversary

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Pittsburgh’s taxi and car service market is in the midst of a pricing war. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission will consider its response to a request from Yellow Cab to increase multiple rates, including the initial “flag drop” base fee from $2.25 for the first seventh of a mile to $4. The company, run by Jamie Campolongo, also seeks up to an $8 surcharge for trips on Friday and Saturday nights.

Pittsburgh Yellow Cab will roll out several programs in 2013 to mark its 100th anniversary, including a seemingly less-than-novel one: cabs you can hail.

In early April, the Manchester-based company will introduce its “Hail, yes” campaign. Customers will be able to flag down a Yellow Cab on the street with a hand wave and with a Z trip app on a mobile device. The company is testing the system and training drivers.

“It will speed up pickups, and people won't have to sit and talk to a telephone operator,” said Jamie Campolongo, chief executive of Pittsburgh Yellow Cab parent, Pittsburgh Transportation Group.

“Our slogan for the 100th anniversary is ‘100 years of moving Pittsburgh forward,' ” he said.

In addition to the cab company, Pittsburgh Transportation operates SuperShuttle, Embassy Coach and group charter services.

Pittsburgh Transportation employs 270 people directly and contracts with about 480 independent contractors who lease and operate Yellow Cabs. The fleet includes 335 conventional sedans, plus wheelchair-accessible cabs, shuttle vans and other vehicles.

“Many of our visitors to Pittsburgh require cab service,” said Craig Davis, president of VisitPittsburgh, a tourist and convention promoter. “So, we count on Pittsburgh Yellow Cab to provide good service, and they do.”

Centenary year events include a logo for Yellow Cab and its cars that appeared in January. In March, in time for St. Patrick's Day, the company will push a “don't drink and drive” public service campaign with a tag line, “Make your last call to Yellow Cab.”

Weekend revelers in the South Side and elsewhere around Downtown present perhaps Yellow Cab's biggest challenge, Campolongo said.

“Demand goes up really high on the weekends but then trails off during the week,” he said. “That makes (logistics) tricky, but you have to deal with it.”

In response to swells in ridership, the company introduced City Cabs in May. Pittsburgh Transportation spent a quarter-million dollars on a dozen sedans tasked with serving Downtown, the Hill District, Oakland, the North Side and South Side. Campolongo said the service worked so well that he might add eight more City Cabs this year.

Campolongo began with the company over 20 years ago as a business consultant for its City Lights monthly newsletter. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” since the 1980s had owned restaurants, a pizza chain, a bakery and a specialty publishing company.

“I came to Yellow Cab in 1991, when it had 165 cabs — and 35 of them were broken at any given time,” he said.

Systematically upgrading the cab fleet took the average cab's age to the less than four years from 11 years in 1991, he said. Yellow Cab introduced credit/debit card readers in 1994. Months ago, it began moving them from the front seat to the back seat so that passengers don't need to hand over cards and can key in tips. The fleet will be equipped by the end of April, Campolongo said.

The company worked hard on customer service, he said. Yellow Cab picked up only 63 percent of customers who called in 1991, according to company records. Now the percentage is “in the high 90s,” Campolongo said.

He bought Pittsburgh Transportation from Stagecoach LLC for $5 million in 1994. In 2008, he sold it to Veolia Transportation On Demand in Scottsdale, Ariz., for an amount he declined to disclose. An affiliate, Veolia Water North America, manages the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

“The acquisition has worked out really well for us,” said Dave Bird, executive vice president of operations for Veolia Transportation. He credits Campolongo and crew, who stayed on after the 2008.

“He doesn't say no to any potential business,” Bird said. “If you need wheels, he can get them for you.”

Yellow Cab added cleaner-burning propane to its fuel mix. It converted about 50 cabs from gasoline to propane and constructed a fuel depot in Manchester.

This year it might add more hybrid vehicles to the two it has.

“We've been plowing money back into the company for a long time, probably $25 million since we sold it in 2008,” Campolongo said.

Thomas Olson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached a 412-320-7854 or at tolson@tribweb.com.

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