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Drivers rail against proposed changes to San Francisco taxi medallion program

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No fare? Taxi driver John Han is training for a new career after spending eight years on San Francisco’s taxi medallion waiting list. Depending on the results of a vote today by the SFMTA’s board of directors, the waiting list could soon be converted to a cash-payment system. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • No fare? Taxi driver John Han is training for a new career after spending eight years on San Francisco’s taxi medallion waiting list. Depending on the results of a vote today by the SFMTA’s board of directors, the waiting list could soon be converted to a cash-payment system.

John Han considered himself a “lifer” taxi driver when he signed his name to The City’s taxi medallion waiting list in 2004. Eight years later and with no hope of obtaining a permit, Han is preparing to move on to a different career, convinced there is no future for him as a San Francisco cabbie.

Han had been having doubts about the profession for years, but the last straw was the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s proposal to drastically change the rules for drivers hoping to obtain a taxi medallion.

Under a setup that has been in place for 34 years, cabdrivers pay a nominal annual fee to remain on a waiting list for one of The City’s 1,500 medallions. After years of waiting, drivers could obtain a medallion, an operating permit that would let them lease out their vehicles to other cabbies for a fee often seen as a reliable nest egg.

Today, the agency’s board could vote to replace that list with a cash-payment system. The first 150 drivers on the list will get an opportunity to buy a medallion for $150,000. For the 1,266 people lower on the list, Han included, a medallion will now cost $300,000.

“When the SFMTA took over the taxi industry, I began considering another career,” said Han, who has been driving for 10 years but is now training for a job in video production. “And when they decided to kill the waiting list, that pretty much sealed the deal.”

While drivers on the list — some of whom have waited for 15 years — rail against the changes, other industry officials welcome the overhaul.

Applicants will be required to pay a down payment of at least 20 percent for their medallions. The transportation agency also has set up a financing system to help drivers buy medallions from other drivers for as little as 5 percent down. DeSoto Cab General Manager Athan Rebelos said drivers who have invested in their permits care more about the industry.

“This is not popular with the people on the list, I know,” Rebelos said. “But this is an opportunity for a driver to build equity and have a real financial stake in the system. The fact of the matter is that a taxi medallion is a guaranteed revenue generator that has a lot of value.”

Under the old system, aging taxi drivers unable to put in the hours behind the wheel required of medallion holders had to abandon their permits. Now they can sell them, which Rebelos said will reduce the number of uninterested drivers.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped agency, which gets a 50 percent cut of sales between drivers, will earn a projected $22 million from the sale of 150 medallions.

“This program will help us to improve taxi service, improve retirement options for taxi drivers and help fund the overall transportation network,” said SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.

Still, those benefits may be lost on the drivers who have waited patiently for their turn.

“There are 1,400 people on the waiting list who are basically getting the door slammed in their face,” said Mark Gruberg, spokesman for the United Taxicab Workers. “Drivers had to wait their entire career to qualify for these medallions, and now the rug is getting pulled out from underneath them.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com