Taxi turbulence - Page 3

SF's cab industry is about to change dramatically — but no one knows how an experiment in selling permits will actually turn out

Dorian Lavender hopes to buy a taxi medallion some day.
Photo by Skyler Swezy

Under the pilot program, drivers will have the option to purchase according to seniority on the list. But without a lender, that's little help.



At 1 p.m. the day of the SFMTA vote, Bill Mounsey and David Barlow were sitting on a bench outside the hearing room. Both are members of UTW and planned to speak in protest of the pilot program.

Mounsey is 63. He's been on the list for 13 years and is No. 200. He is part of the group most vulnerable in the medallion reform process — drivers who have already waited more than a decade but still have years to go.

If at any point the board decides to eradicate the list before he receives a medallion, Mounsey's years of waiting will be wasted. "I would never buy one. I'm 63 years-old, no one would ever give me a loan," he said.

For now, the wait list survives. Under the pilot program, one medallion will be given away for every one sold until the list is exhausted. However, with only half as many medallions being given out, Mounsey fears the list will move half as fast.

Around 50 people attended the meeting, a small fraction of the city's cab drivers. At 3:56 p.m. the board passed the pilot program and Prop. K moved a little closer toward death.

Hayashi spent more than 175 hours trying to create a pilot program that provides the city with revenue and benefits the taxi drivers. She has made an effort to engage the taxi community and worked with a group of drivers to draft the proposal. She even plans on getting a taxi license.

After the City Hall meeting, Hayashi explained the challenges facing the pilot program over coffee in a downtown cafe. Before March 30, when the proposal is set for a final SFMTA vote, Hayashi must lock down lenders, create lending programs feasible for drivers, and set a fixed selling price for the medallions.

The blaring problem with the pilot program is a lack of committed lenders ready to finance cab drivers' loans. Bank of the West has expressed interest, as well as two New York credit unions experienced in medallion loans and two San Francisco credit unions.

But how will those loans be structured? Who will qualify? How much of a downpayment will drivers need? And how, in the end, will this change the experience and qualifications of the drivers — and the quality of cab service in the city?

Hayashi sounds confident. "Good service depends on happy drivers. Our goal is to restore professional pride for the drivers, allow them to feel that taxi driving is a career and a respected profession," she said.

But a lot — a whole lot — can go wrong with this major change in a complex industry that provides essential service to residents and tourists alike. And once the city moves down the path to private medallions, it's going to be hard to go back.