Citing unsanitary conditions for custodial workers, the San Antonio Aviation Department has ordered taxicab drivers to clean restrooms in an offsite waiting lot.

Hundreds of taxi drivers working the San Antonio International Airport use the Ground Transportation Center’s “Orange Lot” to temporarily park their cabs, occasionally eat a meal, socialize with other cabbies, and use the restroom before heading back out on the road.

Cab drivers received notice Tuesday that the Aviation Department will no longer clean the restrooms, but instead will provide cleaning supplies to drivers so that they can maintain the facilities on their own.

Cab drivers Taysar and Jesse Barba (right) discuss their thoughts on the restroom at the Orange Lot.

“Somebody must have complained,” said Jesse Barba, a taxi driver stopped at the spot on Tuesday. “It could be water, it could be whatever, but I have to go wipe it down myself.”

Ryan Rocha, chief of operations for the City’s Aviation Department, said that “overwhelming” unsanitary conditions and “abuse” led to the decision. He described reports of pools of water, paper towels, toilet paper, and feces regularly scattered across the men’s restroom floor. At times feces have soiled the walls, he reported.

Rocha considers the facilities a health hazard for employees. “[I’m] appalled by the abuse they’re going through,” he said Monday during a regular meeting of the Transportation Advisory Board.

The Aviation Department has dispatched janitorial services to the restroom 12 times a day, at an annual cost of $100,000, said Rocha, adding that the cost was not “financially responsible.”

A notice posted on the bathroom doors of the Orange Lot facilities.
A notice posted on the bathroom doors of the Orange Lot facilities. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

If drivers cannot demonstrate they can keep the facility clean, it will be replaced by Porta Potties on Monday, Oct. 30, the department’s notice stated.

The Rivard Report visited the airport Tuesday, found a clean men’s bathroom at the Center, and heard from several drivers eager to share their perspectives. Drivers described issues with standing water, paper towels, and toilet paper tossed on the ground.

A custodial worker had shared with the City and other drivers a photo showing the unsanitary conditions in the men’s restroom. The women’s restroom was not mentioned in the complaints.

The Rivard Report interviewed many taxi drivers outside the bathroom Tuesday. One of those, Ahmad Mahood, said Muslim drivers sometimes use the restrooms for performing wudu, a purifying practice that involves washing parts of the body before prayers. This occurs several times a day, said Mahood, who is a practicing Muslim.

“Before they built this bathroom, they knew our culture,” Mahood said in an interview outside the Orange Lot restroom. “You’ll see there is a faucet,” he said, pointing to a water spigot on the side of the structure. “They put that there to address the religious purpose.”

Aviation Department officials say that the spigot is simply a necessary water source.  However, several taxi drivers sat on a bench in front of the spigot, using the water to wash their feet. (Foot washing is practiced by people of several faiths including Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism.)

Mahood said some drivers may have  inadvertently created a mess when hurrying to wash themselves.

A covered structure with a few rows of benches sits across from the restroom facilities. Early Tuesday afternoon, several men were using the space to pray, kneeling on rugs inside the structure.

On Monday at the Transportation Advisory Board meeting, National Cab owner Robert Gonzales said he was surprised to hear that someone would defecate on the restroom’s floor. Gonzales is a member of the board, which advises City Council on issues related to vehicles for hire.

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“I never had heard that was occurring,” Gonzales said, noting that he was aware that some drivers used the restrooms to wash themselves and their feet for religious purposes.

But Rocha emphasized at the meeting Monday that the unsanitary conditions were not related to the religious washings. “What we’re finding is a lot of feces intentionally put on the floor and we know this [is] …. not because of religious or cultural issues,” Rocha said.

The decision to make taxi drivers responsible for cleaning the restroom comes amidst recent tensions in the taxicab industry caused by ride-hailing mobile apps, said John Bouloubasis, president of the parent company of Yellow Cab San Antonio. He blamed services such as Uber and Lyft for making taxis wait even longer in the waiting lot and in the taxi stand queue, since they reduce taxi demand.

“It’s frustrating,” Bouloubasis said, adding that the City’s handling of the bathroom situation is an example of it “further shunning the taxi drivers.”

However, unlike Bouloubasis, the drivers we talked to on Tuesday did not attribute the unsanitary restroom conditions to tensions over rideshare issues.

The restroom is a public facility and is often used by construction workers and other passersby. Many taxi drivers outside the facility felt that the new policy was a bad idea, while others saw an opportunity to maintain their use of the facility as a washroom. But Mahood noted that it would be difficult for some of the drivers who do not read English to understand the instructions.

Rocha noted that the policy is a temporary decision to put the responsibility into the hands of the drivers in an attempt to address the sanitary conditions in the restroom.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org

Jeffrey Sullivan

Jeffrey Sullivan

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.