Miami-Dade leaders: Time to update cab technology

Patricia Mazzei
November 13, 2013
Miami Herald

A technological revolution — in the form credit-card machines, GPS devices and SunPass transponders — could soon be coming to Miami-Dade County taxicabs.

Those upgrades to amenities that have been available for years may not sound like a big deal. But among some of the county’s more antiquated cabs, they would amount to 21st-century makeover.

A group of three county commissioners voted unanimously late Wednesday to require cabs to purchase newer vehicles and adopt new technology, including digital security cameras, over the next few years. The improvements would be phased in, first applying to cabs that pick up passengers at Miami International Airport and PortMiami.

Eventually, however, all taxis across the county would have to comply, despite concerns from drivers that they may bear the brunt of the costs to install and operate the new gadgets.

“Whatever we do should be countywide,” said Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, one of three members transportation and aviation committee members present at Wednesday’s marathon meeting.

The two proposals now head to the full commission for a vote, likely in December. Also given tentative approval Wednesday were two other measures, one requiring all cabs operating in the county to provide credit-card machines and another increasing penalties for cabs with malfunctioning credit-card machines and for drivers who charge extra fees for credit-card payments.

The measure requiring credit-card machines would be moot if all 13 commissioners adopt the more stringent legislation also requiring the GPS and SunPass devices and newer vehicles. Commissioners could also sign off on the improvements for the airport and seaport cabs as part of an “ambassador” program, for example, but choose not to impose the changes to taxis countywide.

A fifth piece of legislation — the most controversial of them all, to deregulate the limousine industry — was left undecided and postponed to next month’s committee meeting.

Airport Director Emilio González and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, working with a coalition of business groups, have been pushing for the technological upgrades to taxicabs for months, saying subpar service has been a significant complaint among visitors who arrive at PortMiami and MIA.

“With 14 million tourists a year coming into this community, we have to provide a first-, world-class, global experience from the minute they get here to the minute they leave,” said Alyce Robertson, chief executive of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, who chairs the transportation committee, voted for the measures but said he is worried that cab drivers who already struggle to make ends meet — many do not own the taxis they lease — would face a slew of new charges to operate credit-card machines and pay for newer vehicles.

“You’ve set up a system where the drivers are bearing the brunt of the professionalization, but there’s no way to make sure that they’re being adequately compensated,” said Charles Elsesser, an attorney for the New Vision Taxi Drivers Association of Miami.

The majority of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, which lasted more than seven hours, centered on a proposal that would eliminate restrictions on the limousine industry. With the proposal on the verge of failure, the committee pushed back its vote for a month.

Barreiro, Moss and Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said they want the county to retain some control over limousines. The legislation’s sponsor, Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, pledged to make changes so her colleagues would find the reforms more palatable.

“Give us a chance to bring it back,” she said.

At issue was her proposal to eliminate restrictions on rides offered by town cars, black sedans and limousines, including pre-arranging rides an hour in advance, setting minimum fares substantially higher than taxicabs and limiting the number of drivers to 626.

Taxi and limousine owners say the overhaul would upend their business model. Cabbies, chauffeurs and supporters of the mobile-dispatch company Uber say the county needs to remove the restrictions to allow competition and better livelihoods for drivers.

But while the committee could agree to eliminating the lead time before rides, they disagreed on allowing the market to determine demand for drivers and limo rates, even though the minimum would still have been twice the taxi-meter rate for a fraction of a mile.

Edmonson, who is not a member of the committee, did not have a vote. A fourth member, Commissioner Jean Monestime, was absent because he was out of town attending a Florida Association of Counties conference.

Near the front of the County Hall commission chambers sat the owners, clad in matching yellow T-shirts, who argued deregulating the industry squash the owners’ existing business model and hurt consumers because companies like Uber could raise rates at any time based on demand — during a natural disaster or a major event, for example.

“It would create a wild, wild West,” said Lorraine Wilde, president of Go Airport Shuttle, a Fort Lauderdale-based limousine agency.

Near the back of the chamber sat drivers and Uber supporters, who said allowing new players into the market would improve service for passengers and help drivers — many of whom do not own the cabs they lease from owners — eke out a better living.

“It’s the first time in 18 years that we’re going to have a system that we could live with,” said Gustavo Chacon, a limousine driver.

Uber, the San Francisco startup popular in dozens of big cities, is pushing for the change. The company has launched a campaign to rally its supporters, including celebrities, in advertising, social media and online petitions intended to show that plenty of people want the high-end ride service in Miami.

Company representatives rattled off the names of cities where the company already operates, including Jacksonville, and said allowing limousine drivers to sign up with the firm would create more jobs and benefit passengers willing to pay a premium for black-car rides hailed on-the-spot using a cell phone.

“Why should Miami, Florida, be last to do this?” attorney and lobbyist Al Dotson said. “Technology has always been resisted by the existing industry.”

But owners of limousine and taxi permits, called medallions, said an unlimited number of drivers would devalue the pricey medallions, essentially blowing up the very system commissioners created to keep a handle on cabs and limos.

“We’re the last pillar of support for the regulated for-hire industry,” said Terry Eisenberg, who family owns a taxicab company. “If we fall — if you fall today — it will cripple the industry.”

Each of the county’s 2,121 taxi medallions is worth more than $300,000 on the open market, the county estimates. Some are owned by former drivers who saved up for the permits, but others are owned by investors. Medallions are considered property rights that owners can use as collateral to borrow money.

Joe Mora, director of the county’s passenger transportation regulatory division, said medallion values didn’t drop in New York City after Uber set up shop there.

But Miami’s not New York, Moss repeated once and again.

“I just don’t want to have an unregulated process moving forward,” he said.