PUC cracking down on 'Amish taxi' drivers

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LUTHERSBURG, Pa. -- Bonnie Huzinec was stacking bags of groceries in her van when a cluster of bonnet-clad women approached and discreetly asked whether she was busy.

Like Mrs. Huzinec, the Amish women had been shopping at the Sav-a-Lot store in Dubois, Clearfield County. Unlike her, their religious prohibitions against owning or operating vehicles had forced them to hire a driver for the 10-mile round trip to town and back to their tidy farms.

But when the driver didn't show up for the return leg, the women asked Mrs. Huzinec if she'd take them home. So began her relationship with her Amish neighbors, who for five years now have sought her help and her white Chevy Blazer to get to weddings, funerals, midwives and destinations involving too many miles and congested highways to manage in horse-drawn buggies.

"I go wherever they want me to go. They call me or knock on my door,'' said Mrs. Huzinec, 56, who grew up near this rural village, moved away as an adult and returned six years ago to settle in a white bungalow on a hillside tucked between Amish fields.

"It's been a gift for me to be part of another culture. They're like family, and you take care of your family," she said.

Mrs. Huzinec and others around Luthersburg estimate that she is one of as many as 300 "English,'' or non-Amish, people who serve as drivers for a thriving enclave of more than 350 Amish families spanning the boundaries of Clearfield, Jefferson and Indiana counties.

A few drivers have paid for official certificates and commercial insurance required by state regulations. By far, most have not, operating instead within a jitney-style system in which they are compensated with cash, bartered goods or promised services.

But complaints in recent months have prompted the state Public Utility Commission to crack down on unlicensed "Amish taxis'' operating here and elsewhere in the state.

PUC stakeouts

In November, PUC enforcement officers held a public meeting in Luthersburg to explain certification requirements and potential fines for violations to more than 200 people, many of them Amish -- a rare turnout for a non-Amish gathering.

Officers have been staking out and confronting drivers who are believed to accept money for transporting Amish people. In the past year, the PUC also has issued 95 letters of warning in the three counties and is considering $1,000 fines for those who refuse to stop.

The PUC also plans a similar campaign aimed at Amish residents and unlicensed drivers in Beaver, Butler, Lawrence and Mercer counties, spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said.

The stepped-up enforcement has been the talk of Luthersburg and surrounding communities, creating tension between people who supplement their incomes by driving Amish people and those who support state efforts to bring drivers into compliance.

"Oh, it's crazy. It's very big out here,'' said Val Henry, 38, who, with her husband, Dan, runs a market and auto repair business in Luthersburg. She said 75 percent of her customers hire out as Amish taxis because they are laid off from other businesses, on disability or retired with tight incomes.

"Some people, all they have to do is to drive,'' she said. "But some people really have a problem with it."

Amish people summon non-Amish drivers in person or by telephone. Some have their own cell phones and some borrow them, Mrs. Henry said. Others walk to modest three-sided wooden shanties built along country roads to house telephones, then dial a number selected from lists tacked to the walls.

Drivers are cagey about what and how they charge. But generally, compensation is pegged to time, gas prices and mileage. Meals and lodging are provided during overnight stays or longer trips to other states.

"There are secrets," said Mrs. Huzinec, a feisty widow who lives with her mother and two youngest children. "But if I need work done around here, [Amish friends] do it.

"I get gifts. My kids get gifts. It's bartering," she said. "What is the problem?"

Mrs. Huzinec, other residents who wouldn't give their names, and even two Amish men who broke with tradition to speak briefly while walking on a snow-packed road outside Luthersburg, said they were particularly upset that PUC officers had confronted and warned drivers and Amish passengers in Dubois and Punxsutawney.

That hasn't happened to her, Mrs. Huzinec said, but she said she knows drivers who "were scared to death" by those encounters. She contended that state enforcement officers have unfairly targeted her placid community to "profile" Amish passengers.

She also complained that most drivers lack funds to comply with state requirements, and that some drivers who do meet the requirements charge exorbitant rates for short trips.

"To me, it's extortion. Pennsylvania does not realize what the Amish do for this state," she said, ticking off farms, lumber businesses, food stores and other Amish businesses in her community. "A lot of people are very rude, very ignorant about the Amish."

What the PUC wants

But Ms. Kocher said the PUC requires anyone who transports others for compensation to obtain a certificate of public convenience, which costs $350 and is renewed each year. Drivers with certificates are monitored to ensure they and their vehicles adhere to rules covering rates and territories, meet safety standards and maintain commercial insurance, Ms. Kocher said.

"It's different than something occasional, like taking a neighbor to a grocery store," she said. "We understand that people who are being looked at in one area think they are being picked on. But we are trying to protect the public interest and public safety."

The commission issues certificates for two categories of for-compensation vehicles: metered taxis, which must meet more stringent regulations; and paratransit carriers, which include passenger cars to 15-passenger vans, Ms. Kocher said. Commercial insurance fees vary for paratransit vehicles but can cost up to $6,000 annually, she said.

The paratransit category includes vehicles used to drive people "whose personal convictions prevent them from driving or operating a vehicle,'' including Amish people, Ms. Kocher said. Regulation is necessary to guarantee safety of drivers and paying passengers who, in the event of an accident, would not be covered by non-commercial insurance, she said.

Only six drivers have obtained paratransit certificates from the PUC's district office in Altoona, Blair County, which covers Clearfield, Jefferson, Indiana and a dozen other counties in central Pennsylvania, Ms. Kocher said. Since the enforcement campaign began, 13 others have applied for certificates, she said.

Ms. Kocher said nine enforcement officers work out of the Altoona district office and 40 officers work statewide, responding to "surges of activity." They investigate complaints from tipsters as well as drivers who comply with regulations but must compete with those who do not.

"We're not targeting weddings or funerals or functions,'' she said. "We're targeting routine trips where people who are certificated and are following the rules are saying, 'Wait a minute here.' "

Ms. Kocher said officers have authority to conduct stops and safety checks. But they generally wait outside a suspected destination and question drivers and passengers when they arrive or are about to leave, she said.

Officers may be in uniform or in plainclothes, but will have identification. They will ask to see a suspected driver's state certificate and, if one is not produced, will question passengers about the circumstances of their trip, she said.

Or, they may merely note the driver's license number and send a cease-and-desist letter later, Ms. Kocher said. Officers also may send letters to people whose telephone numbers have been posted inside publicly accessible Amish phone shanties, she said.

The PUC pursued fines for paratransit violations against two drivers in the Altoona district and five others around the state in the past year, but Ms. Kocher could not say if those cases involved Amish passengers. By contrast, she said, the commission issued more than 450 warning letters in the past six months and 45 fines in the last two years against unlicensed jitneys, which the commission classifies as taxis rather than paratransit vehicles, in Pittsburgh. The PUC does not have jurisdiction over cab operations in Philadelphia. The commission issued 337 warning letters to unlicensed paratransit operators around the state in the last year.

Mrs. Huzinec said she and other drivers recently contacted the American Civil Liberties Union about their contention that Amish drivers have been unfairly singled out for enforcement because their passengers are more easily identified.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, confirmed that his organization is looking at the issue. The ACLU recognizes the PUC's authority to regulate transportation for hire, but wants to determine if PUC officers first obtain evidence to justify stopping and questioning people suspected of "Driving while with Amish,'' Mr. Walczak said.

"The fact that you've got an 'English' person giving rides to one or more Amish persons does not constitute probable cause that this is an illegal jitney service," he said. "If we acquired evidence that these stops are occurring routinely, we would strongly consider going into federal court. You wonder why is the government spending these kind of resources?''

In the meantime, the threat of potential fines does not faze Mrs. Huzinec. She said her phone shanty and her Blazer will be remain available to Amish neighbors, who've invited her to weddings and funerals and have given her a treasured, painstakingly stitched blue-and-white Starburst quilt.

"I told other drivers, 'If you turn your back on this, it's like how Hitler started.' A lot of them have quit, [saying] 'I can't afford a fine,' " she said. "But I'm not [quitting.] I'll do it for spite.''

Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973. First Published December 30, 2007 6:45 AM


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