Cab Drivers May Get Reform, But Not All They Wanted

City Heights

Cab Drivers May Get Reform, But Not All They Wanted

Taxicab drivers wanted the city to reclaim oversight of their industry from the Metropolitan Transit System. It looks like MTS will keep the contract – but with some caveats.

This post has been updated.

The Metropolitan Transit System Board of Directors took steps Thursday toward renewing its contract with the city to oversee the taxi industry.

The transit agency is under a short-term contract penned after taxicab drivers last year accused MTS of lax oversight and urged the city to bring them in-house. Drivers who lease their cars from cab company owners said MTS’s hands-off approach has resulted in poverty wages and unsafe working conditions.

In December, Councilwoman Marti Emerald, whose District 9 is home to many refugee and immigrant cab drivers, pushed to slow a proposal by then interim mayor Todd Gloria to move forward with a long-term MTS contract. Since then, a committee has laid out recommendationsto guide contract negotiations. The board approved those recommendations, putting the wheels in motion for the city to draft an MTS contract with reforms.

The committee – and now the board – recommends the city create a forum to settle wage and other disputes between drivers and their bosses if “it’s in the public’s best interest.” Emerald said, however, the city and MTS will steer clear of setting lease prices. Previous contracts prohibited MTS from weighing in on such issues.

A 2013 study by San Diego State University and the Center on Policy Initiatives says take-home pay for drivers who lease their vehicles averages $4.45 an hour. They drive an average of 71 hours a week to cover costs. The San Diego Transportation Association, a coalition of cab company owners, refutes those claims but has not provided Voice of San Diego with their data.

Gloria, who is Council president and also sits on the MTS board, said a city takeover wouldn’t fix the situation.

“I don’t believe we have the competency at the city to execute this efficiently or effectively,” Gloria said. “I’m concerned the overhead costs that will be passed on to drivers will be more substantial at the city than it is at MTS and, as a result, I don’t think we’re fixing the issue we’re trying to fix, which is putting more money in the pockets of drivers.”

The committee also recommended MTS “entertain” changing its policies on bookkeeping and vehicle safety. The board amended the item to say it will “strongly recommend” such reforms. A Speak City Heights investigation found 20 percent of cabs on the road were salvaged; 40 percent have been on the road for 10 years or longer.

KPBS also found permits that allow cab companies to operate in the city are being sold at exorbitant prices on a shadow market.

The MTS board voted Thursday to consider during contract negotiations greater oversight of the transfer of those permits – an amendment put forward by Emerald.

Members of the United Taxi Workers of San Diego held signs at the meeting asking the board to reject a long-term contract. They were joined by representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and the Employee Rights Center.

UTWSD legal intern Chris Morse said he appreciates the movement toward reform but is skeptical MTS will see them through.

“Pretty much every month they tell us they’re ready to reform, they’re ready to look at the industry, but we’ve really gotten no traction working with anybody from MTS,” Morse said. “So I’m very familiar with this language, but I don’t think results will come from it.”

Cab company owners held signs that read “We support MTS.” Their representative, Michel Anderson, said he welcomes more regulation but wants a long-term contract signed soon.

“It’s important to bring some stability and some predictability to the industry and put the train back on the tracks, because it’s been derailed for about a year,” said Anderson, who wants to move on to addressing competition from rideshare companies such as Lyft. Gloria said he’s also anxious to set policy on phone-based technology that could make or break the industry.

Thursday’s vote puts the ball in the city’s court, asking it to write up a contract of up to five years with its preferred reforms. MTS and the city must come to an agreement before the current contract expires in July. Emerald said she’s already working with Mayor Kevin Faulconer on finding meaningful reforms.

“We want an industry that is professional,” Emerald said, “and certainly an industry that isn’t at war with itself.”

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