For years New Haven residents have griped about the city’s cab system. So have the drivers.

Last March, one man decided to do something about it.

Former Metro cab driver John Misurale challenged the near monopoly of Metro Taxi in a Department of Transportation hearing. He testified against Metro’s service and won himself four licenses.

Eight months later, Misurale’s new company, Easy One Taxi, has received rave reviews from New Haven residents and businesses.

It is the perfect “Righteous cab driver strikes out on his own to improve city taxi system” scenario.

Perfect, except for a few details.

Misurale faces allegations that he defrauded his fellow drivers and scammed a passenger, all of which he vehemently denies.

The story of John Misurale and Metro Taxi is the story of a David and a Goliath, but the parts of hero and villain are yet to be cast.

Out in the cold

Matthew Rubin hates Metro Taxi, and he doesn’t even live in New Haven.

Rubin, who is now a junior at Swarthmore College, said he remembers bad experiences with New Haven taxis from his college search days.

Three weeks ago, Rubin said, he was at Yale visiting his high school buddy Andrew Allison ’04 and missed his train to Scarsdale because the Metro cab he ordered did not show up.

“I was supposed to see my little cousin play in a soccer game in Scarsdale,” Rubin said. “I missed it because I had to wait an hour for the next train. She was sad.”

Allison said the worst part was the prerecorded call they got telling them their taxi had arrived.

“I guess it’s to their advantage so they can complete their rounds quickly and have everyone out there waiting,” Allison said. “But it’s not an advantage to the consumer for them to lie.”

This automated callback system is part of the $500,000 dispatch system Metro Taxi purchased last year.

“It’s the most sophisticated dispatch system in the world,” Metro Taxi owner William Scalzi said. Scalzi, 45, glows with enthusiasm as he describes the Global Positioning System, or GPS, tracking feature and instant transmission to drivers’ screens.

Metro Taxi is the largest cab company in Connecticut, contracting 160 to 170 drivers with 107 of New Haven’s 133 cab licenses. Yet Scalzi, with his sandy brown hair and khaki pants, belies the image of tycoon his position suggests.

The cherry wood table just inside Scalzi’s office is covered with replicas of taxis, from old-fashioned yellow cabs with checkerboard stripes to the signature Metro cab with its orange trunk and “Metro Taxi” emblazoned in blue letters across its door.

Scalzi has fond memories of his days as a cab driver.

“Taxi driving is a great job. I love it. Sometimes I long for it,” Scalzi said.

But these days the only time Scalzi sets foot in a cab is when he’s riding in the back seat.

Scalzi founded Metro Taxi in 1987. He started out with a fleet of 15 cabs, expanding to 40 within six months.

From Scalzi’s vantage point behind his glass-topped desk, Metro is a superb company.

“We give very, very good service,” Scalzi said.

But judging from the reports of Metro drivers and Yale students and faculty members who report that they have been unsatisfied with Metro’s service, Scalzi seems to be out of touch with the day-to-day reality of his business.

“[The management] just doesn’t know what’s going on on the street,” said David Reems*, a Metro driver.

Stephen Haskell ’04 said he thinks Metro is unreliable and unfriendly.

“They’re terrible,” Haskell said. “But there’s another company that’s better. I think the number is 933-3333.”

Behind the wheel

John Misurale’s “office” is Easy One’s new red, blue and white SUV cab, with the number 933-3333 written in blue across its side.

“This is the first 4×4 taxi in the state of Connecticut,” Misurale said.

Misurale, a solidly built man with salt and pepper hair and a deep gravely voice, is the general manager of Easy One Taxi.

Easy One’s dispatch system is a pair of phones in the console between the driver and passenger seats of Misurale’s car. One phone is connected to the 933-3333 number; the other is a two-way radio by which Misurale can directly communicate with his eight other drivers.

“Every driver working for us is a former Metro driver,” Misurale said.

Clyde Amato* said he worked for Metro for four years before he came to work for Misurale and Misurale’s father-in-law Ed Kulenski at Easy One.

Amato recounted numerous confrontations with the Metro management. He said he feels less aggravation working for Easy One.

“[Misurale and Kulenski] don’t harass you,” Amato said. “They don’t de-authorize you. They don’t say come down here to the train station because we need to talk with you.”

Many current Metro drivers expressed discontent with Metro’s management.

Robert Murdoch* has been driving a cab with Metro for three years. He works a 12-hour graveyard shift from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Murdoch, a soft-spoken man with a Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cup full of coffee on his dashboard that he calls “his trademark,” said it’s a struggle working for Metro.

“They’re too expensive,” Murdoch said, referring to Metro’s lease contracts, through which drivers lease their cabs and the permit rights on a daily or weekly basis.

Owner-operators, drivers who own their cabs, pay about $450 a week for the permit rights. Drivers who lease the cabs as well as the permits pay an average of $725 a week to Metro.

Rich Beardsley* said he works 70 to 80 hours per week — more than the law allows — to support his three children, one of whom is in college.

“I have worked for Metro for 13 years,” Beardsley said. “I have to work more now than in 1989. There’s no love lost between the drivers and the management.”

Other drivers said, however, that they like working for Metro.

“I’m my own boss,” said Chris Jeffreys*. “I don’t kill myself.”

Jim Cohen* agreed.

“It’s very flexible,” Cohen said. “Nobody likes a high lease, but you take the good with the bad.”

Cohen said it’s silly for the drivers to say that Metro is cheating them. Metro has a lease, he said, and you either pay it or you don’t.

To Cohen though, John Misurale is the real cheat.

A shady past

“He’s a scumbag,” Cohen said of Misurale.

He said Misurale forged $10 vouchers for $150 and sold them to other drivers for $125.

“To do that to your fellow drivers is rotten. John Misurale is no saint,” Cohen said. “He got fired for gypping the passengers.”

Scalzi concurred that he terminated Misurale’s contract three years ago because Misurale cheated a customer.

“Did Misurale say why he’s no longer here?” Scalzi asked. “He didn’t mention that he overcharged an elderly women who was visiting her ailing son at Yale-New Haven Hospital by $145?”

Misurale said he left Metro of his own volition because Scalzi would not give him the title to his cab. He said the allegation is false and that the woman couldn’t find her copy of the receipt.

“You shouldn’t accuse someone unless you’ve got the copy,” Misurale said. “Maybe she just didn’t want to pay her bill.”

Then, last June, Misurale was arrested for forging the taxi vouchers and cheating his fellow drivers out of hundreds of dollars.

Misurale confirmed the existence of the voucher charges. He said he has a court date for 2010 and that he will plead innocent.

Getting personal

Despite Misurale’s questionable past, his new company has received praise from New Haven passengers and businesses.

Kevin Regan, the customer services manager of the Amtrak New England division, said having another cab company, especially one with an SUV taxi, is an asset to the New Haven area.

“When there’s a snowstorm, they take all the cabs off the road. I’ve seen people stranded here late at night. I see Easy One out here, and they seem to be doing a good job,” Regan said. “We use [Misurale] a lot because he gives us good service and he’s nice to our customers.”

Many drivers, such as Murdoch, the night shift driver with the Dunkin’ Donuts cup, are tapping into a system of “personal calls” by purchasing cell phones and giving out the numbers to their customers.

Murdoch’s business card is a Metro Taxi card with the 777-7777 crossed out on the front. On the back, Murdoch has written his name and cell phone number.

That way, Murdoch doesn’t have to go through Metro’s dispatch service but can field and pick up his own calls.

For even with Metro’s sophisticated dispatch system, it seems that person to person contact simply provides better service. Metro’s advanced GPS system is no substitute for the driver’s own assurance that the cab will be at your door when you expect it.

Robin McHill, the director of sales at the Whalley Avenue Holiday Inn decided this year to contract with Easy One instead of Metro for airline employee transportation to and from the hotel.

“There were timeliness issues [with Metro],” McHill said. “We’re able to have more direct contact with the owner [of Easy One], who can then communicate with his drivers.”

Personal contact seems to be the secret to Misurale’s superior customer satisfaction.

The rise of David

Misurale plans to petition for more licenses next year. With only four cabs, he said, he clearly cannot meet the demand of the entire New Haven area.

It appears from the model of Metro, however, that size can be a cause of reliability problems. Easy One may run the risk of losing its ability to provide dependable service as it grows. And even with a few more licenses, it is questionable whether Easy One will ever be able to rival its Goliath competitor Metro.

For the time being, however, Easy One seems to be making a difference, at least on an individual level.

Allison Clowery ’04 said she’ll never go back to using Metro after finding out about Easy One.

“A couple of weekends ago, I went to New York and called Easy One to come pick us up,” Clowery said. “Not only did the cab wait 10 minutes outside for us when we were late, but he waited another five minutes for my friend while he got ready, and didn’t charge us anything.”

When they got in the car, Clowery added, the driver said, “You know, if this had been a Metro driver, he wouldn’t have waited.”

And he would know. He used to be one.

*Names have been changed at the request of the drivers.

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