Miami-Dade County

Taxi drivers at odds with cab companies over Miami-Dade legislation that would overhaul industry

Cab drivers who gathered outside Miami-Dade County Hall on Monday waving posters and chanting in unison had this overarching message for county commissioners: Taxi companies don’t speak for us.

The interests of owners of the county’s expensive taxi medallions are often at odds with drivers, who lease the permits and actually pick up passengers, the New Vision Taxi Drivers Association of Miami said.

“We cannot continue to let them mislead the public,” said Raymond Francois, the association’s director.

Taxi companies have been leading the charge against major county legislation that commissioners will discuss Tuesday. The measure would rewrite the rules for town-car service, indirectly upending cab owners’ business model and doing away with long-established industry protections.

Unlike the taxi owners, most cabbies don’t oppose letting San Francisco mobile technology startup Uber from setting up shop here, Francois said. If commissioners deregulate the town-car industry to allow Uber to operate, cabbies would have the option of driving black sedans instead of yellow taxis.

“They want to work,” Francois said of his association’s 1,200 members.

About two dozen of them stood outside the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami on Monday morning, marching in circles and calling for reform. Uber was openly recruiting them, with two young women clad in Uber T-shirts passing out palm cards telling drivers they could “earn more with Uber.” The women also offered chocolate pound cake and guava pastries.

Uber’s chief business is letting users request town-car rides using a smartphone app. The company does not have its own fleet of cars or provide transportation itself; instead, it dispatches partner-drivers to app users.

The startup has been trying to break into Miami-Dade for 18 months, but has encountered stiff political opposition in a county that does not let just anyone enter the for-hire transportation industry.

“No one in the country has these rules,” Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, said in a visit to Miami earlier this month. “These are just laws to protect the taxis.”

For Uber and other similar firms to be allowed in, commissioners would have to eliminate a series of town-car restrictions that limit the number of permits to 626, require drivers to pre-arrange rides more than an hour in advance and set minimum rates far higher than those charged by taxis.

Doing away with those restrictions, as proposed by Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, would not only devalue existing town-car permits but also wipe out the value of more expensive taxi medallions, limousine and taxi company owners fear. They also argue the changes would put passengers’ safety at risk, with an unlimited number of town-car drivers who would not have to be employed by companies responsible for them.

Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association, which represents taxi owners, said in an op-ed published in the Miami Herald on Monday that other apps such as Taxi Magic and Flywheel already let passengers request taxi rides via smartphone. Undoing the county’s town-car regulations to benefit Uber would create a new set of rules for those drivers different from those set for cab drivers, he wrote, calling it a “sweetheart deal.”

“If new companies are granted special exemption for open entry and take only the most lucrative customers, thousands of South Florida taxicab drivers will eventually be driven into bankruptcy,” Feliciano wrote. “When they paid the thousands of dollars of county licensing fees to start those small businesses, who could have known the county would consider changing the rules and pulling the rug out right from under them and their families?”

Francois, the drivers’ group director, said that instead of keeping Miami-Dade’s 2,121 taxi medallions — six of which sold for an average of $415,000 each at the county’s last auction in 2012 — the county should scrap the medallion system and charge to license individual drivers. A $6,000 annual license for some 5,000 drivers could bring in $30 million a year to county coffers, he suggested.

The Uber legislation is not the only matter pitting drivers from Francois’ association against Feliciano’s owners association.

A second proposal to be discussed Tuesday, sponsored by Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, would require all taxis that pick up passengers at PortMiami or Miami International Airport to be equipped with a credit-card payment machine.

That’s fine with the owners, who have touted that the machines could be installed for free, Feliciano said.

But it’s not OK with the drivers, who contend that they will have to absorb the cost of processing credit-card payments, Francois said. A separate proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Dennis Moss, would prohibit drivers from charging passengers extra for paying with a credit card.

Another proposal to be discussed Tuesday, sponsored by Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz and designed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez and MIA director Emilio González, would require cabs at the airport and seaport to feature not only credit-card machines but also GPS devices and Sunpass transponders.

Those taxi drivers, who would receive a decal identifying them as an “ambassador” cab allowing them to work at the county-owned ports, would also have to follow other rules, including having more up-to-date cars, dressing less casually and opening car doors for passengers.

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