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Judge Denies Injunction On Open Taxi Market In San Diego

Cabdriver Abdikadir Abdisalan and Institute for Justice Attorney Keith Diggs ...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Cabdriver Abdikadir Abdisalan and Institute for Justice Attorney Keith Diggs talk to the press outside of the Hall of Justice, where a judge heard arguments for and against an injunction on the city's plan to issue more taxi permits, April 28, 2015.

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The Metropolitan Transit System can continue processing the 1,516 permit requests taxi drivers began filing in March when a cap was lifted.

A judge has ruled the city of San Diego and a regional transit agency can move forward with plans to issue new taxi permits.

Existing permit holders had called for an injunction following the city's decision to lift a decades-old cap on permits. That cap held the number cabs on San Diego roadways at 993 and largely prevented new cab companies from gaining a foothold in the industry.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager denied the injunction late Tuesday making way for the Metropolitan Transit System to continue processing the 1,516 permit requests taxi drivers began filing in March.

"I am very relieved that I can go forward with my permit application and start my own taxi business for myself and my family," Abebe Antallo, a driver and organizer with United Taxi Workers of San Diego, said in a press release.

At the center of the permit holders' legal challenge, which must move through the courts despite the injunction ruling, is a claim that the city should have conducted an environmental review before deciding to open the taxi market. In hearings leading up to the decision, several permit holders warned lifting the cap could multiply the number of smog-producing taxis idling in taxi queues.

RELATED: San Diego Cabbies Brace For An Open Taxi Market

In his ruling, Prager called the environmental challenge "speculative and unsupported."

"The judge himself actually said in the hearing the petitioners were able to offer no authority whatsoever saying that a taxi project has ever been held to be subject to CEQA," said Keith Diggs, an Institute for Justice attorney representing two drivers who want permits.

CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act. Diggs said the California Public Utilities Commission has already ruled CEQA doesn't apply to policies allowing similar for-hire vehicles - Uber and Lyft - on the road.

And soon-to-be permit holders like Abdikadir Abdisalan have to buy low-emission cabs under the new regulations.

"Owning my own taxi (would give) me the freedom to spend time with my family and be off the roads," said Abdisalan, who's leased a cab for nine years. "I'm on the road a lot of times driving about 70 hours a week."

A representative for the permit holders in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.

Changes came to the industry after San Diego State and Center on Policy Initiatives study found drivers who leased cabs from permit holders had to work long hours to cover high leases and netted less than minimum wage. Permit holders have said they believe the study was flawed and the figures exaggerated.

"A lot of hard work and research was conducted to achieve this policy reform and we are very encouraged about Judge Prager's decision to allow drivers to continue applying for permits," said Sarah Saez, program director for United Taxi Workers. The group led reform efforts on behalf of drivers.

Judge Prager's ruling also allows two drivers to present arguments as interveners as the case moves forward. Otherwise, only permit holders and a deputy city attorney would have appeared before a judge.

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