Miami-Dade County

If Miami-Dade upgrades its taxi fleet, who pays for it?

Taxi owners and their supporters cheer at a meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission's transportation and aviation committee Wednesday.
Taxi owners and their supporters cheer at a meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission's transportation and aviation committee Wednesday.

Miami-Dade’s taxi fleet is long overdue for standard technology that is commonplace in other big-city cabs, like credit-card readers, GPS devices and electronic toll machines, a group of county commissioners acknowledged this week.

But upgrades cost money. And no one is sure who will pay for it all.

Most likely to feel the hit are the people on the bottom of the taxi-industry totem pole: drivers who don’t own their own cabs.

“I’m all for taxicab improvement,” Geoffrey Radlein, who owns his taxi, warned the three commissioners on the transportation and aviation committee Wednesday night.

“However ... it’s very costly, and somebody’s going to pay for it — and chances are it’s going to be the drivers.”

It was a rare point of agreement between taxi owners and cab drivers, who have been fiercely at odds over another proposal that would deregulate the closely related limousine industry.

Both sides say passengers would benefit from new hardware, particularly credit-card payment machines that have long ago been installed elsewhere. But the legislation the committee tentatively approved makes no mention of who would pay for what. The full commission will have final say next month.

Backing the improvements are chambers of commerce and tourism boards, whose members sported yellow stickers Wednesday that read, “World-class destination. World-class cabs.”

William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, had this to say about the taxi industry: “It’s broken. It needs to be fixed. We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

One of the ways to compensate drivers and owners for the added expense could be for commissioners to increase taxi fares. The legislation gives the commission the option of drawing up a new fare structure within a year of adopting the new requirements.

Fares haven’t been raised since 2005, when they went up 13 percent. They went up 12 percent in 2003.

In the meantime, owners could hike the rate that drivers pay to lease their cabs, which the county has no power over under state law. Commissioners agreed last week to urge Florida lawmakers to reconsider that prohibition.

Researcher Marcos Feldman told commissioners that a preliminary study of taxi drivers’ working conditions has shown that drivers’ lease costs have climbed 44 percent over the past decade. On average, drivers make $5.56 an hour — less than minimum wage — after paying $25,000 to $40,000 a year in vehicle upkeep, gas and other costs.

“About half of the drivers report that they’re working while they’re sick, because they cannot afford to take that day off,” said Feldman, of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University.

The most comprehensive of the four proposals that received support Wednesday would require all taxis operating in the county to install credit-card machines, SunPass toll transponders and top lights within two years. The top lights would let passengers know if the taxi is vacant.

Cabs would have to set up GPS, digital security cameras and warning lights within 30 months. Warning lights would signal to law enforcement that an emergency is taking place inside the taxi.

Some companies that sell credit-card readers have indicated that they would not charge taxis to install the machines. But they would charge transactional fees. Drivers also fear a delay in getting money in their pocket as credit-card charges get processed, though the legislation says drivers must be credited in two business days.

The county would prohibit taxis from charging passengers extra for paying with plastic, though they would be offered a discount for paying cash.

Drivers would have to fork over money up front for SunPass transponders, though they would continue to charge passengers for the actual tolls.

As for the digital security cameras, at least one taxi owner took issue with the requirement — not because of the potential expense, but because of the lack of privacy.

“People in business, sometimes on the way to the airport, they sit in the taxi and discuss their business — sometimes their private and very personal relationships,” Robert Puente said.

The most expensive improvement, however, would have nothing to do with new gadgets. It would require refreshing the taxi fleet with newer vehicles.

Current county rules establish a lifespan of about eight years for cabs, though that has been stretched recently due to the economic downturn. Wednesday’s legislation would shorten that timeframe to about six years.

Taxi owners, many of whom lease out their vehicles, said that additional cost would inevitably be passed on to drivers.

Rudy Gonzalez of U.S.A. Taxi told commissioners he spends an average of $7,000 to $10,000 for retooled cabs under the existing rules allowing older cars on the road.

“You have the drivers not making any money, so where’s the money going to come from if I have to spend $20,000 for a car?” he said. “The money’s got to come from somewhere.”

Commissioners did amend the proposal to allow surplus police patrol cars to continue to be used as cabs, even though they guzzle more gas.

Owners made passionate pleas in defense of Ford Crown Victorias, the classic police cars cabbies say make good taxis because of their spacious interior and roomy trunks.

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