Before an overflow crowd, a Metro commission Tuesday delayed voting on a proposal for the city’s first driver-owned taxi company.
The Metro Transportation Licensing Commission agreed to pick up the issue in December. The decision came at the conclusion of a public hearing that spanned two and a half hours. An estimated 200 people attended.
Looking to improve work conditions and financial viablity, a group of cab drivers, primarily Ethiopian-American immigrants, have put forth a plan to start a new taxi company called Volunteer Taxi. Drivers who formerly worked — or perhaps currently work — at Nashville’s five existing licensed cab companies would own the company.
“We’re trying to help the drivers financially, as well as in benefits,” Volunteer Taxi organizer Delelegn Ambaw told The City Paper. “The drivers would be the owners, the shareholders, of the company.”
Cab drivers pushing for Volunteer Taxi, 60 in all, say they are required to purchase their vehicles, as well as provide maintenance of their vehicles, under the system’s current arrangement. Hours often total 12 to 14 a day, they say, and cab drivers are unable to unionize. Meanwhile, the large corporate cab companies bring in the bulk of profits.
“The vehicles are owned by us, the insurance is paid by us, and all maintenance expenses are paid by us,” said Ambaw, who claims he was fired from his previous cab company after bosses learned he was organizing the company. “So, in a real sense, we already are the owners.”
Keeping receipts would allow Volunteer Taxi workers to receive health insurance, Ambaw said, which existing drivers don’t get. They could also enhance services, he said. To date, Ambaw said Volunteer Taxi has $532,000 in cash and vehicles to help start the venture.
For the driver-led company to gain approval, the commission would have to increase the cap of permitted cab vehicles authorized in Metro. Metro sets the permit limit one time each year. The cap is currently 585. Volunteer Taxi has asked for 80 cab permits.
But Brian McQuistion, director of the commission, has recommended the board not increase the cap, largely because of staffing. Operating under a tight budget, he said the commission is already struggling to inspect the existing number of cabs in Nashville.
“If we add any more permits, I would prefer it wouldn’t be a large number we would have to respond to,” McQuistion said.
Besides Volunteer Taxi, three other groups have applied to open new companies in Nashville. In addition, three existing companies have asked for more vehicle permits.
At Tuesday’s public hearing, as many people spoke against Volunteer Taxi’s proposal as for it. Some cab drivers said a new company, and more permits, would stretch business. A few said the 585-permit limit should increase after the opening of Music City Center in 2013 when tourism is expected to boost.
Executives of current Nashville cab companies are also skeptical of the idea.
“It’s a challenge. Everybody think it is easy,” said Michael Solomon, executive vice president of Taxi USA of Tennessee, which operates Nashville Cab, Allied Cab and Diamond Cab.
“It takes hard work and it takes a lot of knowledge,” Soloman said. “We have a team of people who have been doing this for years. Just because you’re a cab driver doesn’t mean you can run a company.”
Despite the pushback, Volunteer Taxi organizers –– which include legal counsel and a lobbying arm –– said they were pleased with the commission’s decision to delay voting on the issue.
“We’ve got to get as much public support for these guys as we can,” said attorney Paul Soper of the one-month period before the next vote. “I hope it gives these commissioners time to digest everything they’ve heard today, because they got a lot of information tonight.
“Once they’ve had the time to really think about it –– think about what’s best for Nashville and what’s best for the immigrant community in Nashville –– they will come to the right decision,” he said.