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[whitespace] Medallion owners have a ticket to drive, not a free ride

By Jenn Shreve

Making a living as a cab driver is hard work. To use the car, drivers must shell out $85 to $90 for a 10- to 12-hour shift. They must earn that much back in fare and tips, just to break even. On a bad day or during slow hours, the gross earnings can be quite meagre.

But if a taxi driver is also a medallion owner, he or she can be make some decent dough long after departing the driver's seat.

The medallion is a permit to drive a cab, and there is one assigned to each cab in the city. No cab can operate without this piece of metal, placed prominently in the window. The number of medallions, and hence cabs, in San Francisco is regulated by the city Police Commission, which sells them for $250 a pop. Although that's a small sum, the investment of time is another matter.

"Right now it's a 30-year waiting list," says Officer Paul Makaveckas, who works taxi cab detail for the S.F. Police Department. "A person comes in, they get their name on a list. When someone in the industry dies, the medallion comes back into the police."

Cab companies are allowed a limited number of medallions, but for the most part they must lease medallions from other owners. "If you had one right now, I'd rent it from you for $2,400 a month," one cab company administrator told me, on the condition I not reveal his name or company.

Owning a medallion is a nice little investment, allowing a driver to earn as much as $29,000 a year for seemingly no work. The trick, however, is drivers must do just that: drive.

"Let's suppose you get your medallion--sure, Yellow Cab is going to pay you a lease fee, but you have to drive it," says Officer Makaveckas.

Medallion owners must drive a "minimum of four-hour shifts 185 days per year," according to James Maddox, medallion owner and shareholder in Yellow Cab cooperative.

But that figure changes, apparently due to the S.F. Police Department's struggles to interpret a confusing 1970s law known as Proposition K. Prior to Proposition K, medallions could be passed on through inheritance, or shared by two spouses. Now when an owner stops driving or dies, the medallion goes back to the police commission to be passed on to whoever is next on the waiting list.

Once a medallion is purchased, "the potential for different arrangements is wide open. The law says the medallions and the taxi cab business are to operated under the free enterprises. So it's up to the individual owner," says Maddox, who drives his taxi full-time. "Many of us have chosen to join into cooperatives or other arrangements with existing companies. And there are others who go on their own. The advantage to being in the company is the radio service."

But those at the top of the medallion waiting list could be looking forward to a potential boon. Mayor Willie Brown recently called a task force comprising cab drivers, hotel and restaurant owners, and others involved in the tourist industry. They're recommending an increase of 200 or 300 cab medallions.

That could spell bad news for current drivers, since a large influx of taxis on the roads means more competition for wages.

But Maddox, who obtained his medallion in 1984, doesn't seem too concerned. "There are different opinions on it. A lot of people feel we need more taxis. There are also a lot of drivers who don't want more. The preponderance of evidence is we need more taxis."

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From the March 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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