Cabbies’ Suit Says Hybrid Rule Threatens Work

By dancurranjr On April 9th, 2009

hybrid-taxiA group of taxi drivers and medallion owners is suing the City of Boston to block the requirement that all 1,825 cabs in the city be hybrids by 2015, saying the measure could put many of them out of business.

The plaintiffs say they do not oppose hybrid cars and generally favor the greening of the fleet. But they bristle at a regulation that they must buy new hybrids instead of less expensive used ones, and want the city to delay the changeover.

“I support the used hybrids,” said a plaintiff, Raphael Ophir of Jamaica Plain, who owns three hackney medallions and leases them to several cabdrivers. “But with this economy, with big companies going into Chapter 11, and with no credit available . . . delay it for two or three years.”

Andrew Hebert, a manager at USA Taxi Garage in Dorchester and the publisher of a magazine for the taxi industry in Boston called Rearview Mirror, said: “The owners are essentially saying, ‘Look, we’re not against going green, we’re against going broke.’ ”

Officials from the Police Department’s Hackney Carriage Unit, which regulates the taxi industry, would not comment on the federal lawsuit, according to Elaine Driscoll, a police spokeswoman.

However, James W. Hunt III, the city’s chief of environmental and energy services, said Boston has shown sensitivity to the taxi industry, raising fares in August to one of the highest rates in the country and agreeing to phase in the switch to hybrids over seven years.

“The city has developed a reasonable rule with reasonable timelines that provides incentives for drivers and owners to reduce costs, and protects the public health of the citizens of Boston,” he said. He added that greater fuel economy will help offset the cost of new hybrids.

The dispute stems from a rule announced Aug. 29 by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis that raised fares to improve air quality and upgrade the cab fleet. Under the fare increase, customers pay $5 for the first mile and $2.80 a mile after that, up from $2.40.

Traditionally, most taxis in Boston are used Ford Crown Victorias purchased from the police and refurbished for commercial use. Such cars can cost as little as about $4,000, Ophir said, although Hunt put the cost at between $7,500 and $10,000.

Cab owners are required to replace taxis every six years to maintain the condition of the fleet. Starting this year, drivers began replacing 2002 cabs with better gas-mileage hybrids, mostly Toyota Camrys. Ophir said hybrid Camrys cost about $30,000, including the expense of converting them to cabs. Hunt said the cost is about $25,000.

About 10 percent of the 1,825 cabs are now hybrids, Driscoll said.

New Camry hybrids get about 34 miles per gallon compared with new Crown Victorias, which get about 20 miles per gallon.

In its lawsuit filed Friday in US District Court in Boston, a group led by Ophir that calls itself the Boston Taxi Operators Association said the new rule is unreasonable because it forbids taxi owners from buying used hybrids. Used hybrids are often hard to find, the plaintiffs acknowledged, but can cost a third of the price of a new hybrid, the association said.

The association, which represents nearly 200 medallions, according to Ophir, also contended that car insurance for new hybrids can be two or three times as expensive as for used ones.

“Whether it’s a new hybrid or a used hybrid, either way it’s helping the environment,” said Paul H. Merry, a Boston lawyer hired by the association.

The association also contends that conventional cars such as the Toyota Sienna and Dodge Caravan are in the top 10 percent of fuel-efficient cars, even if they don’t perform as well as a hybrid.

The plaintiffs were buoyed by a recent federal court ruling in New York City in response to a similar effort there to increase the use of fuel-efficient taxicabs.

In October, US District Judge Paul A. Crotty blocked New York from implementing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to require taxicab replacements to meet fuel efficiency standards consistent with hybrid models. The initiative would have resulted in an all-hybrid fleet by 2012.

The judge sided with taxi owners, who contended that fuel economy and vehicle emissions standards are the domain of the federal government, not the city.

The Boston Taxi Operators Association makes a similar argument in its 24-page complaint, saying Boston is violating the federal Clean Air Act by requiring a hybrid taxi fleet.

George Summers, who owns USA Taxi Garage and is a plaintiff, also contended that Camrys were not built to serve as cabs and may not hold up as well as heavy-duty Crown Victorias. Cabdrivers can easily put more than 100,000 miles a year on a taxi.

Ophir, 59, a native of the nation of Georgia, said the new rule was enacted with little input from the taxi industry and that he will have difficulty staying in business if the rule is not relaxed.

A former cabdriver, Ophir purchased three medallions from the city over the past 25 years for about $621,000 and leases them. The drivers are hardworking immigrants from Somalia, Morocco, and Ethiopia, he said, and cannot afford to buy new hybrids.

Alluding to his background as a resident of the former Soviet Union, Ophir said that city officials pushing for hybrid taxis “want to be more socialist, but they want capitalists to pay for their socialist ideas.”


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