Taxi drivers honk as other drivers and supporters rally before a hearing on the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority taxi medallion reform proposal at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF to ban most of taxi fleet from SFO to help struggling cabbies

The City walked back a controversial proposal to shrink the local taxi industry Tuesday night, but did approve restrictions on which taxis can pick up passengers at San Francisco International Airport.

The change was crafted with the intention of shuffling some taxi medallions back into San Francisco, instead of allowing large numbers to wait at SFO for one plum ride.
There are about 1,450 medallions in service today, according to the SFMTA, used across 4,800 active taxi drivers.

Among calls of “shame!” and “you should all go to hell!” as well as a stream of four-letter words, taxi drivers blasted the proposal for San Francisco to phase out about 260 decades-old taxi permits, called medallions, to help divert business to more struggling taxi drivers with more recent, more expensive medallions.

“They’ve killed the taxi industry,” said Yellow Cab driver Marcelo Fonseca just after the vote. He wasn’t alone in his critique.

Five members of the Board of Supervisors also penned an eleventh-hour letter objecting to the reforms, arguing for a more incremental approach.

Ultimately, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors dropped the proposal to phase out some taxi medallions, which taxi industry veterans said would put less cabs on the road. The board did however vote to approve other taxi reforms Tuesday night changing who can and cannot buy medallions, despite a verbal barrage from some 80 taxi drivers.

Only taxi drivers using the 560 or so medallions sold by the SFMTA after 2012 will have access to SFO. In arguing for the SFO ban, SFMTA staff said too many taxi drivers idle at the airports, wishing for one longer fare for a big payout, clog SFO when they could be roaming city streets. The taxi lot at SFO holds 427 cabs but is at capacity daily, according to the SFMTA. And taxi trips have dropped from 33 percent to 10 percent of all trips from SFO, according to Seth Morgan, a senior transportation planner at the airport.

“Overall, customer demand for taxis is down significantly,” he said, at the meeting.

Yet demand for Uber and Lyft at the airport is exploding, according to airport data. That dynamic has shaken the taxi industry, and during the two-hour long public comment period drivers packed City Hall to recount tales of bankruptcy and personal struggle.

“There was no business out there for me,” said ten-year cabbie Antonio Yon, during public comment. “I couldn’t pay my mortgage payment. They were about to take over the house. I was so sick, and getting lots of nasty calls from the bank.”

“I was very desperate,” he said, his voice nearly at a whisper. “I was about to commit suicide.”

Though the taxi reform was contested, it was also billed by the SFMTA Taxi Services head Kate Toran as a way to help drivers in need. Those who obtained taxi medallions for a low cost after new taxi regulations were enacted in the 1970s made more than $1.6 million over the decades. She argued that those 260 medallion holders need to be phased out of the industry so that more taxi drivers, who pay medallion holders for their use to legally drive, will instead seek out medallion holders who paid SFMTA $250,000 for them in 2012.

Essentially, Toran’s proposal would phase out long-time medallion holders to ensure the financial solvency of more recent medallion holders, who bought those permits just
as Uber and Lyft rose to prominent. That’s a historical accident that led to financial hardship for hundreds, she said.

The San Francisco Federal Credit Union also opposed the taxi reforms. The credit union is suing the SFMTA to the tune of $28 million for allegedly allowing taxi medallions to become worthless, even as the credit union offered loans to taxi drivers. A letter in opposition to the reforms sent by Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Sandra Fewer, Rafael Mandelman, Norman Yee and Hillary Ronen called for the SFMTA to oppose limiting taxi pickups at SFO, and phasing out older taxi medallions.

“I received a letter from five supervisors to oppose this proposals,” SFMTA director Art Torres told Toran. “Where do you stand on those issues?”

Toran said she disagreed.

“Maintaining a status quo does a disservice to our medallion holders,” Toran told Torres. “… My concern is the number of purchased medallions being foreclosed.”

The board decided not to approve phasing out medallions, though Toran and SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin argued it would help other medallion holders.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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