Help for Boston taxi owners? 

TAXI OWNERS HAVE been hit with a one-two punch in recent years. 

First, the explosion of the Uber and Lyft rideshare apps proved devastating to their business. The pandemic added insult to that injury, turning downtown Boston into a ghost town as the bustle of the city that is a cabbie’s lifeblood ground to a halt. 

A trio of Boston city councilors says it’s time for the city to step up and help. 

Councilors Kendra Lara, Frank Baker, and Michael Flaherty filed an order yesterday calling for a hearing to explore using some of the more than $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act money the city has to support a medallion “buy-back” or other efforts to help struggling cab owners. 

“This is an industry that’s been all but decimated,” said Lara, a district councilor representing Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury who is leading the effort. She said the focus is not on owners of large fleets of cabs but on small operators, many of them immigrants, who took out enormous loans and pushed their savings into buying a single medallion or two.  

The taxi industry is one of those areas of the economy that operates like a market, but with a heavily distorting effect from tight government regulation. The number of taxi medallions has long been limited as a way to ensure a level of business for cabs, but that has driven up the price of a medallion over the years, with the licenses fetching several hundred thousand dollars at their peak.

Then came the disruptive impact of Uber and Lyft, which offered rides at the touch of a phone screen at a fraction of the going rate for taxi service. Rideshare app prices have since risen, but lots of the damage to taxis has been done. Add the hit from the pandemic, and taxi owners are in dire straits, said Lara. 

“We are very quick to bail out banks,” she said of the housing bubble break more than a decade ago. And when it comes to the pandemic, she said, restaurants were quickly targeted for help. 

The case for helping cabbies, say the councilors, is especially strong because they relied on a market heavily regulated by government in getting into the business, only to see those protectionist guardrails collapse. 

How any program by the city to buy back medallions would work isn’t clear. Lara says the idea of a hearing is to brainstorm different possible solutions. 

“It’s not a level playing field,” said Flaherty, referring to disruption caused by rideshare apps and the “onerous” regulations the city imposes on taxis that don’t apply to rideshare drivers. 

Drivers bought medallions thinking they were a path to providing for their family, he said. Flaherty said that’s what his grandfather, a father of 10, did decades ago when he bought a medallion. Flaherty said his father and one of his uncles also drove his grandfather’s cab to support the family. 

Last fall, New York City taxi drivers camped out in front of City Hall, with some going on a hunger strike calling for help from the city. At least nine debt-burdened New York cab drivers have taken their lives, according to The City. Some drivers owe as much $500,000 on loans for their medallion, the site said. 

A taxi driver’s association there called on the city to buy back medallions and then resell them to drivers at prices with loan payments of no more than $750 a month. The city instead offered a proposal calling for interest-free loans of up to $20,000 and $1,500 in monthly payment subsidies for up to six months. 

“We sell this American dream, where if you invest and work hard you have a chance to make it,” said Lara. “When things outside their control and our control happen,” she said of Boston cab drivers, “we can’t act like we have our hands tied behind our back.” 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

MBTA falls short on safety: The Federal Transit Administration ordered the MBTA to address a series of “serious safety issues” immediately and challenged the Department of Public Utilities to do a better job overseeing safety efforts at the transit authority.

– The safety problems appeared fairly basic, which is troubling given the claim of T leaders that safety is their top priority. The FTA said the T wasn’t spending enough on maintenance and engineering and giving its repair team only 2 ½ hours a night to get work done. The operations control center is understaffed and overworked. Trains with brake problems are not secured properly, leading to five runaway trains in rail yards since January 2021. Most perplexing of all, many T workers don’t get recertified on safety protocols each year, which may explain why so many accidents are occurring.

– Keep in mind these are safety issues that need to be addressed immediately. More safety concerns are likely to be raised in a final report coming out this summer. “FTA underscores that transit riders in the Boston area should not interpret the special directives issued today as a reason to avoid the MBTA subway or light rail. Rather, FTA’s actions provide system-wide measures to fix longstanding issues with the agency’s overall safety program and culture,” the federal agency said in a press release. Read more.

Mental health legislation: The House is preparing to pass mental health legislation that builds on what the Senate already has passed and focuses on providing access to care for children. Read more.

Dental question advances: The Supreme Judicial Court brushes aside a challenge to a ballot question that would limit how much dental health insurers can spend on administrative costs. The question is pitting dentists against insurers. Read more.

OPINION

Quiet rooms: Eric Gordon of Emerson College recounts the development of a 20-minute documentary called “Quiet Rooms” that centers on five mothers who recount their journeys of grief and healing after the murder of their sons. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

House Speaker Ron Mariano is not yet sold on East-West rail. (State House News Service)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Boston’s city-run anti-gang programming office is in disarray as concerns mount about a violence-filled summer. (Boston Globe

The Boston City Council approved a symbolic slavery apology. (GBH)

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle files open meeting complaints against the town’s School Committee. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Brewster offers free beach passes to members of the Wampanoag Tribe. (Cape Cod Times)

A plaque in Worcester meant to honor the Nipmuc people instead angered many in the indiginous community. (Telegram & Gazette)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

COVID vaccines may soon be available for children under five but it’s an open question whether parents will vaccinate their kids. (MassLive)

Massachusetts has had six cases of the rare monkeypox virus since May. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The Federal Reserve stepped up its battle against inflation, announcing its largest interest rate hike in 28 years. The goal is to tamp down consumer demand for all sorts of products, which has contributed to the runup in prices. (NPR)

President Biden withdraws his nomination of Rep. Maria Robinson of Framingham for a top job at the Department of Energy. (MetroWest Daily News)

Dr. Anthony Fauci tests positive for COVID. (NPR) Four days earlier, he attended a ceremony at Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross. (MassLive)

ELECTIONS

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington says she is not concerned by the recall of a progressive DA in California, but her Democratic  primary opponent, Timothy Shugrue, says she should be. (Berkshire Eagle)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Massachusetts had the fourth-highest rate of unemployment insurance fraud during 2021 as fraud spiked during the pandemic. (Eagle-Tribune)

High fuel prices are hurting fishermen and recreational boaters. (Standard-Times)

EDUCATION

Questions are being raised about Malden school superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy’s claims to have earned a doctorate from a university in Spain, something that can’t be readily confirmed, she says, because of details of a prenuptial agreement with a former husband. (Boston Globe

Worcester schools report a surge in teens using marijuana. (Telegram & Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

On the same day a devastating report was issued by federal officials about safety on the MBTA two Green Line trolleys “unintentionally coupled” (which sounds like they affectionately nuzzled but indicates they collided at a low speed) with passengers eventually evacuated and forced to walk through the tunnel between Park Street and Government Center. (Boston Herald

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Floods ravage Yellowstone National Park. Is it a sign of what’s to come with climate change? (New York Times)

The State of Massachusetts will buy the Mount Tom quarry and former ski resort in Holyoke. (MassLive)