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MTS’ Taxi Role Seen As Fair By Cab Cos.

Taxi business representatives say they would welcome five more years of oversight from San Diego’s established taxi regulator, and they’re hoping the Metropolitan Transit System board will decide June 19 to grant a city request that it continue acting as the city’s cab regulator through 2019.

The MTS has been doing so for more than two decades under an arrangement intended to be cost-neutral to the agency, an MTS spokesman said, noting that the agency charges taxi permit owners for its work.

Now would not be a good time to deal with a different oversight agency, cab owners say, for an industry facing challenges from labor organizers and competition from smartphone-based services functioning as cab companies while calling themselves transportation network companies, or TNCs.

Gathered around a lobbyist’s conference table on a recent Friday, representatives from the San Diego Transportation Association — a group representing more than 400 taxi permit owners and led by Tony Hueso, president of the USA Cab radio service on Imperial Avenue — talked about such concerns. Chief among them was the public’s perception of how drivers are treated and how that might bear on labor relations.

Drivers Daunted?

Still fresh in the representatives’ minds is a report issued one year ago, titled “Driven to Despair: A Survey of San Diego Taxi Drivers,” which alleges that taxi drivers — a large percentage of whom are immigrants — are treated terribly. San Diego State University and the Center on Policy Initiatives, a Mission Valley group that works closely with organized labor, produced the report in May 2013.

The transportation association responded with an inch-thick booklet refuting the report.

Authors of “Driven to Despair” have a poor understanding of the business and the report is packed with misinformation, said Michel Anderson, principal in a consulting firm that works with the taxi group.

Meanwhile, authors of the report said they conducted more than 300 interviews with taxi drivers and found they make a median of $4.45 an hour while working a median of 71 hours a week.

Anderson said the local business model treats taxi drivers as independent contractors, who lease their cabs and set their own hours while affiliating with a radio dispatch service such as USA Cab. Drivers pay for gas while vehicle owners pay for other expenses, including insurance, inspections, meters and paint.

Anderson recalled a series of meetings where lease drivers and union members aired their complaints before business interests. At the fourth such meeting, Anderson said, the businessmen in charge of the taxi industry offered to make the drivers employees, receiving a minimum wage, health care, eight-hour days, two-week vacations, and W-2 wage and tax statements.

“They didn’t want to go there,” Anderson said. “There is money to be made.”

The SDSU-Center on Policy Initiatives study said taxi drivers typically lease a cab 12 hours a day for $400 a week. A cab driver interviewed by the Business Journal recently in Pacific Beach said he pays $320 a week to lease his cab, which he shares with a partner who pays the same amount. He also pays for gas.

Hueso, the owner of 43 cabs, said his drivers can choose among 16 lease rate schedules. One of the 16 is as follows: $80 for a 24-hour day, $450 per week and $1,700 per month.

Amid such dueling viewpoints on driver pay, Uber Technologies Inc., one of the more prominent TNCs operating in San Diego, issued a statement in late May claiming that drivers affiliated with its basic service here earn a median income of $54,138 per year.

For the foreseeable future, Hueso is OK operating within the MTS’ framework. And while he said “nobody’s ever happy with their regulator,” he believes it beats the alternatives, particularly as he and other cab owners think about the changes they once expected from City Hall under former Mayor Bob Filner.

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