A 2013 study by San Diego State University and the Center On Policy Initiatives showed San Diego cab drivers take home, on average, less than $5 an hour. It set off a yearlong debate about who should run the taxi industry and how. One of those questions was answered Thursday at the Metropolitan Transit System Board meeting.

Speak City Heights

The industry will stay with MTS. But the pick-up on reform remains slow.

The city and MTS have settled on a five-year contract that absolves MTS from having to initiate any reforms to improve conditions for drivers. It says “MTS does not desire to expand its regulatory role” and will not be required to handle disputes between cab companies and their subcontractors.

That means it was status quo when cab drivers stepped into their cars after Thursday’s meeting. They had no new protections against low wages, long work hours and alleged retaliation from cab company owners.

But language in the contract does open the door for city-led reforms.

“This is just the beginning. We have a foot in the door for some of the reforms that have been requested and we’re going to have, obviously, a robust discussion here at this board,” said Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who represents neighborhoods where many cab drivers live and who serves on the MTS Board. “I do believe that we’re going in the right direction.”

Emerald said she’ll bring to the city’s public safety committee concerns about vehicle age and allegations of retaliation against drivers who speak out.

Any measures crafted there would need approval from the City Council and MTS Board, which has not yet approved a 2012 council policy amendment that would require taxicabs to be outfitted with security cameras. But MTS has agreed to require cab companies to provide copies of receipts and contracts to drivers and regulators – a rule borne out of recent talks about the industry.

Members of the San Diego Transportation Association, which represents individuals who hold permits to operate cab companies or lease out their taxicabs to subcontractors, have denied claims that drivers make poverty wages and are blacklisted for protesting. They supported the contract.

“It will bring stability back to the taxicab industry,” SDTA spokesman Michel Anderson said.

Drivers and their advocates said they’re comforted that the contract allows the city to cancel the agreement if it doesn’t work out but wanted more definitive action.

“We want to know about the stability of the drivers who don’t know if they’re going to make their lease payment,” said United Taxi Workers of San Diego spokeswoman Sarah Saez.

Emerald and Councilmembers Todd Gloria and Myrtle Cole, who also sit on the MTS Board, tried to strike the contract clause that establishes MTS will steer clear of owner-driver conflicts. The motion failed, pushing the board to vote on the contract as presented. Councilman David Alvarez was the only San Diego representative to oppose the contract, saying it doesn’t do enough for drivers.

“I don’t think this contract will get us to a place where we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Alvarez said.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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