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San Diego, MTS Approve Taxi Contract But Still Idling On Reform

Above: Taxis lined up in downtown San Diego.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Aired 6/20/14 on KPBS News.

A new contract leaves the Metropolitan Transit System as the regulator of the taxi industry. Drivers hoping for reform will have to turn to the city.

A 2013 study by San Diego State University and the Center On Policy Initiatives showed San Diego cab drivers take home, on average, less than $5 an hour. The report set off a yearlong debate about who should run the taxi industry and how. The first question was answered Thursday at the Metropolitan Transit System Board meeting.

MTS will continue to regulate the industry and few changes are expected.

The city and MTS have settled on a five-year contract that absolves MTS from having to initiate any reforms to improve conditions for drivers. It says "MTS does not desire to expand its regulatory role" and will not be required to handle disputes between cab companies and their subcontractors.

That means it was status quo when cab drivers stepped into their cars after Thursday's meeting. They had no new protections against low wages, long work hours and alleged retaliation from cab company owners.

But language in the contract does open the door for city-led reforms.

"This is just the beginning," Councilwoman and MTS board member Marti Emerald said, who represents neighborhoods where many cab drivers live. "We have a foot in the door for some of the reforms that have been requested and we're going to have, obviously, a robust discussion here at this board. I do believe that we're going in the right direction."

Emerald said she'll bring to the city's public safety committee concerns about vehicle age and allegations of a practice of retaliating against drivers who speak out.

Any measures crafted there would need approval from the City Council and MTS Board. MTS has not yet approved a 2012 council policy amendment that would require taxicabs to be outfitted with security cameras. But MTS has agreed to require cab companies to provide copies of receipts and contracts to drivers and regulators — a rule borne out of recent talks about the industry.

The San Diego Transportation Association, represents individuals who hold permits to operate cab companies or lease out their taxicabs to subcontractors. Its members have denied claims that drivers make poverty wages and are blacklisted for protesting. They supported the contract.

"It will bring stability back to the taxicab industry," SDTA spokesman Michel Anderson said.

Drivers and their advocates said they're comforted that the contract allows the city to cancel the agreement if it doesn't work out, but wanted more definitive action.

"We want to know about the stability of the drivers who don't know if they're going to make their lease payment," United Taxi Workers of San Diego spokeswoman Sarah Saez said.

Emerald and Council members Todd Gloria and Myrtle Cole, who also sit on the MTS Board, tried to strike the clause that establishes MTS will steer clear of owner-driver conflicts. The motion failed, pushing the board to vote on the contract as presented. Councilman David Alvarez was the only San Diego representative to oppose the contract, saying it doesn't do enough for drivers.

"I don't think this contract will get us to a place where we're doing what we're supposed to be doing," Alvarez said.

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