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East's big snowstorm is a windfall here as taxis go long distance ; Desperate travelers pay $1,000 or more

Buffalo taxi drivers are getting an unusual and lucrative -- request from travelers this week: Take me to New York City. And step on it.

With airports, bus depots and train stations paralyzed by an epic East Coast snowstorm, desperate travelers are turning to taxis to get them where they want to go -- even if it means fares of $1,000 or more, not including tip.

Local cabdrivers have headed straight to the most affected areas -- New York City, Boston, even Connecticut and Vermont -- to take home travelers whose flights have been diverted to Buffalo.

"It's a tough ride," said Frank Bona, secretary of the Airport Taxi Service, which has made eight to 10 trips to New York, Boston and Connecticut in the last two days. "It's a lot of wear and tear on the drivers. A lot of the guys are still recuperating. [But] we don't [say no], we get people where they want to go."

That was the only thing on Airport driver Eddy Emran's mind Sunday morning, when a New York woman with six children burst into tears because her flight was canceled and she was short on money.

Remembering a similar situation several years ago, Emran cut the woman a deal and saddled up for the seven-hour drive to the Bronx. It took 14 hours.

"I saw two big fire trucks that were broken down, one police car, one ambulance [all in a row]," Emran said. "I'd drive 100 feet, and I was parked for hours again."

Bill Yuhnke, president of Liberty and Yellow cab services, said his companies have been getting calls from Big Apple residents who were diverted to Buffalo. He said many of the travelers -- like the visiting New England Patriots on Sunday -- couldn't find a hotel room in Buffalo because of the World Junior Hockey Championship. So his drivers made about 25 trips to Batavia. After those rooms were filled, they started driving people to Rochester.

"We normally would not see that kind of activity," he said. "If they're going to kick a football team out, good [luck] at getting a room."

Many flights from Buffalo Niagara International Airport -- where 1.7 inches of snow has fallen since Sunday -- were delayed. Tuesday evening, flights to the New York airports were delayed from two to five hours, and there was an eight-hour delay in Newark, N.J.

"[There's a] backlog certainly, because [of] the number of people who didn't get out yesterday and the day before and those who are regularly scheduled today," said C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. "There are a lot of people trying to get out."

Cabs are not the only cars in demand. An employee at Enterprise car rental in Buffalo said she believes that sales at companion companies National and Alamo have increased based on the amount of calls she has referred there. Many of the travelers have requested one-way rentals to drop off the cars in New York or Boston, something Enterprise doesn't accommodate.

Amtrak trains from Buffalo to New York City were booked until Friday afternoon, though Greyhound bus tickets were readily available Tuesday, according to company websites.

Gary Yuzbashev, owner of Buffalo Transportation cab company, said he began offering rides to New York and Boston about four years ago. Planes would detour into Buffalo, and some passengers would do anything to get to New York.

"If people are going overseas, they want to make it to New York or they're not going to make it to Italy," he said. "People want to hurry."

So Buffalo Transportation works with diverted airlines, sometimes sending an entire flight to New York in 18 or 19 cabs. He said the company usually makes two trips each winter.

"I think it's kind of ironic that we get the bad name of being the worst place to go in winter, and airlines are parking their planes back in Buffalo," Yuhnke said. "I'm kind of enjoying this, to be honest with you."

Randy Elliott, a Buffalo cabdriver, left Buffalo at 5 a.m. Sunday to take a young couple and their child to Brooklyn. He compared the scene there with the recent snowstorm in South Buffalo.

"That was how many feet of snow versus a foot [in New York]?" Elliott asked. "They don't know how to plow in New York City. They don't have the equipment, they don't have a place to put it. If they had a place to put it, it might be a lot better. I'm not saying Buffalo does a great job plowing, but compared to them, we do a great job. They don't plow like we do."

Bona said that his company is just living up to the motto "City of Good Neighbors."

"You know how we react when we have a snowstorm here. Everybody pulls together," he said. "It's the same thing with the traveling public. You put three to four strangers together, and they become best friends. Everybody has one thing in mind: home. They want to go home."

Elliott had to laugh at his passengers' reaction to New York City's snow-clogged streets:

" 'We should have stayed in Buffalo.' "

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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