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San Diego Airport Authority Votes Down Taxi Drivers’ Calls To Lift Permit Cap

A supporter of lifting the San Diego International Airport's cap on taxi perm...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: A supporter of lifting the San Diego International Airport's cap on taxi permits holds a sign that reads "New opportunities, not monopolies," Feb. 2, 2017.

Only a limited number of taxi drivers are allowed to make pickups at the San Diego International Airport. Some drivers want that cap lifted.

There are more than 1,200 taxi drivers in the city of San Diego, but only a fraction of them have the special authority needed to pick up fares at the San Diego International Airport. On Thursday, cabbies packed the monthly Airport Authority Board meeting, some asking for the cap of just more than 360 to be lifted, and others asking for it to be left in place.

The dispute is reminiscent of the 2014 debate over whether to lift the overall number of taxi licenses in the city of San Diego. At that time, there were 993 permits.

“When the cap was lifted in the city, people thought it would be this flourishing great experiment,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, president and CEO of the Transportation Alliance Group, a trade organization that represents drivers who already have airport permits. “There’s no business in the city, that’s why they want to come into the airport because there’s some level of business here, but it is diminishing also.”

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Kwiatkowski said if permits are open to all drivers, it will oversaturate the market and hurt business for everyone.

At the meeting, Bill Kellerman from the Metropolitan Transit System, which oversees taxi permits in the city of San Diego, said more than a thousand people expressed interest in obtaining a permit once the city lifted its cap. But that interest dropped. More than two years later, 269 new permits have been granted, he said.

San Diego State University Professor Jill Esbenshade studied the taxi industry before the city of San Diego opened its market. Back then, she found that the limited number of medallions in the city created a black market. Now, she said, she’s hearing similar anecdotes about permits for the airport, which means drivers may have to pay high prices to use someone else’s permit.

“Because it’s so desirable to drive at the airport, those taxi stickers are now going on a black market for $25,000 to $30,000, which is one of the reasons that the city changed its policies because their permits, which were a $3,000 application fee, were being sold for up to $140,000 dollars on a black market, and this is public property,” she said.

Esbenshade said her 2013 report, "Driven to Despair," showed back then cab drivers had to work 70 hours a week to make the same as a minimum-wage employee did working 40 hours a week. She said a majority of the drivers she surveyed lived in City Heights or surrounding neighborhoods and had emigrated from East Africa or the Middle East.

In the middle of this taxi battle are rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, known as transportation network companies. The airport has separate agreements with those companies that allow any number of rideshare drivers to pick up at the airport. But those drivers face fewer hurdles than cabbies to get that authority. For example, taxi drivers must submit to background checks and drug tests by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. Rideshare drivers do not.

For the cab drivers, Kwiatowski says perhaps there is a different option than just all or nothing, but he said the two taxi sides haven’t come together to discuss it.

On Thursday, the board voted unanimously to keep things the same. Spokesman Jonathon Heller said the board wanted to keep its relationships with current taxi operators to ensure a high level of customer service. Chairwoman April Boling also said another three-year agreement with the permitted drivers will give them time to recoup costs for vehicle upgrades pushed by the airport. Additionally, officials were concerned whether the airport's taxi lot could accommodate such an large influx in cab traffic.

But, Boling added, when the issue comes up again in three years, things may go a different way.

A post by the United Taxi Workers of San Diego after the San Diego Airport Authority meeting, Feb. 2, 2017.

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