Cabbies cry foul over plan to sell medallions

Forget what Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro told you — a cab driver's life is full of long hours, low pay, and little else. In fact, the highlight of a hack's life is the day when the city of San Francisco hands him or her a taxicab medallion, a coveted and scarce commodity without which a cab is operating illegally. There are 3,200 people on the waiting list to get a medallion; of those, 1,700 have been waiting for more than 10 years.

So it's no surprise that some drivers were outraged when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which is facing a $45.3 million budget deficit, proposed letting people cut in line if they pay $250,000 for one of those cherished medallions. The MTA wants to sell 60 medallions to raise a cool $11.2 million, which the agency is already planning to spend, and needs to spend soon: The $11.2 million was included in its operating budget for the current fiscal year, and if it isn't raised by the cabbies, it needs to be slashed from the budget.

Some cab drivers, especially those who've been on the waiting list a long time, think that a high-priced fire sale is unfair. “The public is not being served, and drivers are being hurt,” said Mark Gruberg, president of United Taxicab Workers, in an impassioned plea to the MTA's board of directors.

In its defense, MTA says it will issue a medallion to a driver on the list for each one it sells, and the 60 medallions it is selling belong to people who shouldn't have them in the first place: drivers who don't actually drive anymore, and taxicab corporations.

Some drivers think selling off the medallions is a good idea, but even they have reservations. Ed Healy, a 64-year-old driver who maintains a blog, The Phantom Cab Driver Phites Back, says he's supportive of the plan because it gives older drivers some kind of paid exit, something they haven't enjoyed since 1978, when voters approved Proposition K, which made medallions nontransferable. But he worries MTA may start looking at the city's yellow cars with eyes of green every time there's a budget problem in the future.

“If MTA says every year, cabs are supposed to come up with millions to balance the budget, they're in for a big fight,” he said.

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