Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft will be legal in Miami-Dade by the end of the year, Mayor Carlos Gimenez predicted Monday as he promised a major rewrite of county taxi laws that would deregulate “a substantial part” of the cab industry.
“Demand is too great” for the companies and their cellphone-based ride services, Gimenez said. “You’re not going to put that genie back in the bottle.
“I’m not going to drag Uber and Lyft back into the 20th century,” he continued. “I think the taxi industry has to move into the 21st.”
The taxi industry pushed back on Gimenez’s comments, offering a preview of the kind of fight ahead as the well-established cab system goes up against high-tech companies that are operating outside of county rules governing fares, driver qualifications and cash transactions.
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“It can’t work both ways,” insisted Diego Feliciano, president of the 1,200-member South Florida Taxicab Association. “You can’t regulate half the industry but not the other half.”
Gimenez made his remarks at a press conference where the New York-based company ZabCab was unveiling a new app that will allow customers to summon regular taxis with a single tap on their smart phones, a core feature of ride-hailing companies like Uber.
Uber and Lyft, which pair passengers with freelance drivers via apps, are technically illegal. Despite drawing a blizzard of traffic tickets when they first set up shop in Miami-Dade in the spring of 2014, they’ve continued to operate more or less openly for the past year.
Gimenez said he’ll push for measures to expand the regular taxi force by ditching restrictions on how many cabs can operate in Miami-Dade and who can drive them. Under current law, the size of the taxi fleet is capped and each cab must have a permit — medallion, in industry jargon — that can cost up to $300,000 on the resale market.
“We’re going to do something about the numbers, and we’re going to do something about the medallions, these kinds of things,” Gimenez said. “There are issues that have to be overcome. The owners had to purchase those medallions, so we have to figure out: How do we deal with that?”
I’m not going to drag Uber and Lyft back into the 20th century. I think the taxi industry has to move into the 21st.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Medallions have long been a central obstacle to resolving the Uber standoff. County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo proposed his own fix in the spring that would have legalized Uber and Lyft and let them register their own drivers and set their own fares. His legislation did not propose any compensation for existing owners of the county’s 2,100 medallions or tinker with how the county issues taxi licenses.
“My thought always was that the medallion issue would be the subject of a lawsuit and we would deal with it then,” he said. Bovo’s proposal failed to get the votes needed for passage, marking the last time the commission addressed the Uber issue this year.
Dennis Moss, a leading Uber critic on the 13-member commission, described the company’s flouting of county regulations as operating “gangster-style.” But he said he’s ready to accommodate Uber in some form.
“At some point, we’re going to have to come up with a solution,” he said. “If it was easy, we would have done it by now.”
Daniella Levine Cava, the newest county commissioner, said she wants a quick resolution to the Uber fight. “The status quo is not good for anyone,” she said. Audrey Edmonson, a county commissioner supportive of Uber, warned against an extended fight that could prompt Uber to withdraw from Miami-Dade like it did this summer in Broward. County leaders in Broward backed off efforts to impose restrictions Uber opposed, but a final resolution still hasn’t been reached.
“I don’t want to see Miami-Dade County experience what Broward had to experience,” she said.
Cab operators first learned the outlines of Gimenez’s plans at a meeting about two weeks ago. “I have to say it fell on deaf ears on our part after he said he was unwilling to cap the number of Uber or Lyft taxis out there,” Feliciano said. “We would never support any kind of open-entry system. … I don’t think there’s enough customers in Miami-Dade County for everybody.”
Cab drivers say Uber and Lyft drivers should have to follow the same rules they do, including purchasing commercial-vehicle insurance, complying with the legal rate structure and passing the same identity checks. They also see deregulation as a mortal blow because they contend a significant increase of for-hire vehicles on the streets of Miami-Dade would dilute — or even wipe out — the value of their medallions.
“The county sold those medallions with the understanding that there was always going to be a limit on the number of them,” said attorney Sandy Bohrer, who has represented cab companies in court in the past. (Bohrer also represents the Miami Herald.) “And they’ve created a property right. If they abrogate it, their liability is going to be tremendous.”
The taxi owners have proposed a $2 surcharge on all for-hire trips — both Uber and Lyft and regular cabs — until enough money has been raised to buy back the medallions. In return, the county can expand the number of cabs all it wants.
The county has issued about 2,200 medallions — each good for one cab — to about 600 owners.
Bohrer predicted that any move that devalues the medallions will trigger a class-action lawsuit against the county for as much as a quarter of a billion dollars.
“I wonder how that would affect the county’s ability to sell bonds?” he mused.