Hillsborough cabdrivers keeping close eye on taxi reform plan

TAMPA — If pending legislation passes, Hillsborough County will likely go the way of Manhattan and Miami and base its taxi industry on medallions — cab permits that can accrue immense value for their owners.

If that happens, a debate awaits. At issue would be how to deal with the 598 existing cab permits potentially worth millions as medallions, and where to direct the flow of new medallions.

Local cab companies tout a plan that would automatically turn their permits into medallions. It also woos drivers with a sweetener: Some new medallions would be reserved for a drivers-only auction, with five-year financing on winning bids.

In a private meeting earlier this month, cab company executives and the county's top taxi officials championed the proposal to three veteran drivers seen as unofficial emissaries for their peers.

After the meeting, John Bailey, one of those drivers, said: "We would definitely be in favor of it. … It's a small step in the right direction."

Last week, the bill passed the state Senate Budget Committee and awaits Senate floor debate.

On Tuesday, Bailey and his colleagues organized fellow cabbies to discuss how to improve an industry that they say leaves them poor and at risk. They spoke favorably of the companies' proposal and told their peers to fight for their small perk if it comes to debate.

But drivers may be selling themselves short.

Thirteen years ago, Miami-Dade County introduced a medallion system designed to direct every one into drivers' hands.

There, only drivers can buy existing medallions. All new medallions are given to drivers through a lottery. When Miami-Dade set those rules in 1998, drivers controlled 5 percent of the permits, county officials said. Today, they own 30 percent.

"That I could live with," said Vincent Tolbert, another driver representative, when he learned of Miami-Dade's system. "I will be laying that on the table."

Permits are essentially taxi licenses rented from the county. Medallions are the private property of their owners; they can be sold, left in a will and even used as collateral. And with strict limits set on the number of cabs in the county, demand is high. One medallion recently sold for $206,000 in Miami-Dade.

Language inserted into an omnibus transportation bill would empower local governments across the state to convert taxi permits into medallions.

If the bill passes as is, Hills­borough's Public Transportation Commission will decide if or how to implement a medallion system. The agency's board, composed of elected officials from the county and its three municipalities, is primed to approve medallions because of largely unanimous support from cab companies, county regulators and drivers.

Drivers want medallions so they can escape the expensive leases — up to $545 per week — they pay cab companies for the right to work. Companies want them for the immediate value and flexibility; they could sell a few if money is tight. County regulators, the enforcement branch of the commission, want medallions to open up the market. Currently, permits are locked in place, with two companies in a near duopoly.

Most of the commission board hesitated to take a stance, leaving the possible debate for this summer.

"We will workshop it — get the drivers involved and also the cab companies," said Plant City Mayor Dan Raulerson, the board chairman. "Once everybody's at the table, we say, 'Okay, how should we do this?' "

But the commission's newest member, Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, assured drivers they would get a fair shake. "I definitely will be asking the (commission) to look at the model from Miami," he said. The companies' plan "just doesn't go far enough."

Since Miami-Dade introduced medallions, the industry there has shifted, said Raul Gonzalez, who helps manage taxi regulation for the county. The more than 500 drivers who own medallions are far better off than their peers, he said, and many lease their medallions part-time to other cabbies.

Some of the county's 39 cab companies now provide only dispatching or insurance to drivers, he said. In Hillsborough, eight companies control all the cab permits — their bread and butter. Drivers must sign a lease with one of the companies to legally operate a taxi. Many drivers pay top dollar for the works: a permit, a cab, insurance and dispatchers. But those who own their cabs must still pay a company for the right to use it.

Still, the Miami-Dade system is far from perfect, Gonzalez said. Drivers without medallions face the same issues as cabbies here: long hours, scant earnings and no health insurance. And the county wrote its medallion rules with a vision of drivers invested long-term in the industry, buying better vehicles and providing better service. But, Gonzalez said, many drivers flip their medallions to other cabbies when in a pinch.

The system "has been a positive step in the right direction," he said. "But it's not magic."

Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough cabdrivers keeping close eye on taxi reform plan 04/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 11:57am]

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