Taxi-lobby funding fuels Chicago push to shackle Uber drivers

Flush with taxi cash, some Chicago aldermen are determined to impose cumbersome restrictions on those trying to make a living through ride-hailing services.

Members of City Council moved March 14 to subject drivers using platforms such as Uber and Lyft to the same chauffer’s license requirement under which traditional taxi drivers have been forced to operate for decades.

A chauffer’s license costs $500 and requires time and money to get fingerprints taken, attend classes and have a doctor’s visit. The city makes just $15 for every chauffeur’s license it issues.

The proposed measure fell in committee by a narrow 6-to-5 vote. But ride-hailing drivers and customers shouldn’t rest easy. The traditional taxi industry has spent tens of thousands of dollars supporting Chicago aldermen over the years, and it’s hoping that investment pays off.

According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, 13 aldermen took a total of $51,500 from the Illinois Transportation Trade Association Political Action Committee in 2015. The stated purpose of the PAC is to “garner support for the Illinois taxicab industry.” It donated an additional $10,000 to the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.

Longtime alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, who supported a similar licensing proposal in October 2015, was the biggest winner, taking $10,000 from the PAC in 2015. The previous year, owners of Dispatch Taxi gave Burke $10,000. Allegations that Burke has given preferential treatment to the taxi industry for his own benefit stretch back decades.

Proponents of the traditional taxi industry’s vendetta against ride-hailing services often say they are fighting to “level the playing field” between taxi drivers and their competitors.

But if taxi companies really wanted to level the playing field for drivers, they would be lobbying the city to scrap its byzantine medallion system, which has shackled thousands of drivers – often immigrants from low-income backgrounds – with debt they may never be able to pay off, especially as their industry shifts away from a factory model and toward more flexible hours for drivers, more vehicle options and customized service.

It’s estimated that only 2,000 of the nearly 7,000 taxis operating in Chicago are owned by independent taxi drivers. The rest of the medallions are leased to drivers by taxi companies for an average of nearly $500 per week.

Unsurprisingly, businesses that make money off this failed system are major supporters of the Illinois Transportation Trade Association PAC.

Chicago Medallion Brokers Inc. and Chicago Medallion Management Corp. have combined to give the PAC nearly $36,000 since its founding in 2014. Various branches of Yellow Cab funneled $270,000 into the PAC over the same period, according to the PAC’s quarterly financial reports.

The taxi cartel has long been rigged by the industry’s largest players for the betterment of corporate bottom lines. But it’s crumbling. And traditional taxi drivers who had little choice but to enter this long-protected industry have been hit hardest.

Making it more difficult to make a living for Chicago’s thousands of ride-hailing drivers is an unfair and counterproductive response to the hardships imposed on taxi drivers under the current regime. The death of the old taxi model is a good thing. It should not be protected for the sake of owners who sold their employees a false bill of goods, and who are seeking to protect their profits with political muscle.

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