At a sometimes contentious hearing on taxi regulation - at which cabbies revealed plans to sue the city over its credit-card requirements - drivers, city councilors and the city taxi czar agreed on one point: The city needs to crack down on unregulated livery drivers and out-of-town cabbies stealing business from the locals.
All sides agreed drivers of black - and now sometimes white - cars need to finally come under city regulations. All sides raised the specter of livery drivers attacking passengers and driving without background checks.
"We have no idea what kind of crazies are driving these liveries," said City Councilor Maureen Feeney, who called for the hearing to discuss removing taxi regulation from police and giving it to some sort of citizen commission that would include drivers, representatives of the local hospitality industry and some large employers, along with somebody from BPD. Nobody mentioned representation for riders until Lumina Gershfield, director of the Future Boston Alliance asked for it late in the hearing.
Drivers testified increasingly bold livery drivers now solicit business from inside South Station while they cool their heels in cab lines outside. One said sometimes he feels like he's driving in Revere rather than Boston because he sees so many cabs from that city around him. Driver Arthur Rose estimated he loses $30 to $40 a day to livery drivers and out-of-towners.
Mark Cohen, the director of licensing for the police hackney division, said he's been trying to get livery vehicles under his regulation ever since he assumed his position 26 years ago. But that got Feeney to yelling at him - she said she didn't know until the hearing that livery drivers were not regulated by the city and that she had never seen a request from Cohen to do anything about them.
Feeney said the way the city enacted 2008 regulations to require hybrid cabs and credit-card readers failed to solicit enough input from cab owners and drivers, whom she said were hurt financially by their enforcement.
Donna Shaw, manager of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, said the group probably wouldn't have filed its suit over the hybrid requirement - which it won - if it had a panel with which to discuss proposed new regulations. And Shaw said the group wouldn't be preparing another suit over the credit-card requirements if it had a seat at the table to discuss implementation. She said cab drivers don't oppose the machines, but are upset that they can be forced off the road immediately if their readers don't work, even if it's not their fault. New York gives drivers 48 hours to repair their card readers.
Cohen said he is willing to talk to anybody anytime about how his division can do a better job, but said the council should carefully consider the public-safety ramifications of expanding authority over cabs. Feeney and Councilor Tito Jackson - whose father ran two cab companies in the 1970s - said they did not want to detract from the good work the hackney division does, but want to ensure the people who are regulated have some say. Councilor Mike Ross said Boston now has one of the cleanest, best taxi fleets in the country - and way above those in certain neighboring communities he declined to name.
Cabbies said they are tired of being penalized by an inflexible hackney division for continuing glitches in the card-reader systems - which they said can be caused by everything from thunderstorms, which a few days ago knocked out the readers in some 500 cabs, to the Sprint satellite that links their cabs to the credit card processor going on the fritz. And they said it's unfair they have to pay fleet owners every day but that the credit-card processors only pay them twice a week. One noted the irony that the hackney division, which issued the credit-card regulations, doesn't accept credit cards for license renewals - they have to pay in cash.
Councilor Ayanna Pressley said hearing driver complaints was "upsetting and concerning," especially because they risk their lives driving a cab.
A separate committee chaired by Councilor Sal LaMattina plans a separate hearing on the 6% fee drivers now pay for credit-card transactions.