Minneapolis lifts cap on taxi cab licenses

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The Minneapolis City Council on Friday passed an ordinance lifting the long-standing moratorium on taxicab licenses, stirring anger among cabdrivers who fear that their once expensive and hard-to-find licenses will become worthless.

In an 8-4 majority the Council voted to add 45 new taxicabs each of the next four years. Ten percent of the new cabs must be wheelchair-accessible and fuel-efficient.

“This uncompetitive cap on taxi licenses needs to be lifted,” said Council Member Paul Ostrow, chief author of the ordinance.

Taxi drivers say the move means massive losses in excess of $10 million for the estimated 400 taxicabs in the city. The longtime moratorium created a booming market, in which license holders sold their permits to new owners as much as $25,000 a piece. The city knew about the market and tacitly approved it. Under the new ordinance, licensees can’t “transfer” their permit or sale it.

New owners will obtain their permit at almost no cost.

Some of the new licenses will be appropriated for Latino companies who never operated a taxi service in the city. That has current drivers disappointed.

“Are you telling me that some people are getting in a single stroke what I worked for years and spent thousands on?” said Zack Williams, owner of Rainbow Taxi, which operates more than 45 taxicabs in the city “That’s just not fair.”

Waleed Sonbol, general manager of Blue and White Taxi agrees. He says that while he doesn’t object to Latinos owning and operating taxicabs, he wants a leveled playing field for all.

But members of the Latino community, who showed up in force during the vote, say the city’s taxicab system cries for a “reform.”

“No community should have a monopoly on taxicab business,” said Luis Paucar, whose new company, New Star, is hoping to get up to 15 licenses. It took him four “bitter” years to see this day, he said.

Paucar and others in the Latino community, who already bought and painted fleet of cars, say it’s time for Spanish-speaking taxicabs in the city, because it’s getting harder for non-English speaking customers to call for a fare.

That’s shared by some non-Latino immigrants.

Abdisalam Hashim, manager of Bloomington City Taxi, said non-English speaking Somalis face the same problem. Often times, he said, a Somali person would miss important appointments while awaiting someone to call a fare for them.

Taxicab companies say they employ at least one Spanish-speaking dispatcher, but admit that he can’t cover all the calls. They also say that most of their drivers are from Somalia.

But Hashim accuses them of exploiting immigrant drivers by making it look like that removing license limit is bad for business. “The reality is that once the cap is lifted, many immigrants can easily own taxicabs with no strings attached.”

If proposed talks with the mayor fail, Williams of Rainbow Taxi and Sonbol of Blue and White said they will file a lawsuit against the city for “violating” an agreement that stipulated that no new licenses issued unless there’s a provable need for it.

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