The Hamilton Spectator

Cabbies welcome fee renewal discount, but say more is needed to help struggling industry

City staff recommend council approve extending pandemic relief program for local operators

- SEBASTIAN BRON REPORTER SEBASTIAN BRON IS A REPORTER WITH THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR.SBRON@THESPEC.COM.

‘‘ We both pick up customers and take them from Point A to Point B. It’s the same service, so why two sets of rules?

JAGTAR SINGH CHAHAL CEO OF HAMILTON CAB

Extending a pandemic relief program that made it cheaper for cab drivers to keep their inactive plates would help alleviate — but not solve — the litany of issues plaguing the industry, local cabbies say.

A report headed to the city’s planning committee Tuesday recommends council continue to provide a discount on annual renewal fees for taxi plate owners whose cars are off the road.

The special yearly fee of $120 per inactive plate — instituted in late 2020 as COVID-19 rocked taxi ridership and reduced fares — is an alternativ­e to the $720 cabbies with active plates have to pay annually to keep driving.

Prior to the pandemic, cab owners who didn’t pay their annual fees had to relinquish their plates to the city for free so they could be reissued. The temporary relief program, meanwhile, allowed cabbies whose plates were inactive to pay a cheaper fee that put them “on hold” for a year.

“If the cars are not being used, why should we pay the $720?” said program supporter Jagtar Singh Chahal, CEO of Hamilton Cab, whose number of active plates has shrunk from 228 pre-COVID to 170 today.

Local taxi brokerages have reported that 101 out of 470 plates in Hamilton are out of service, meaning the city would forgo an estimated $59,700 in revenue by continuing to waive the full annual fees, according to the planning committee report. Hamilton is the only municipali­ty in Ontario that still offers an inactive plate fee. The recommende­d extension comes as city staff conduct a “comprehens­ive review” of its decadesold taxi bylaw. And that’s needed now more than ever, argued Blue Line president Anthony Rizzuto, noting the continuati­on of the relief program, while welcome, is a Band-Aid over the gushing problems besetting the taxi industry.

Rizzuto said the city should consider why the waiving of full annual fees is needed in the first place: in addition to reduced fares, drivers are facing sky-high insurance costs and competitio­n from ride-share companies like Uber.

“That’s why we have less plates in operation. We need a level playing field,” Rizzuto said, adding the clear regulatory difference­s between taxis and ride-hailing companies have allowed the latter to monopolize private transit in the city.

Beyond annual plate fees, Hamilton cabbies are required by law to have cameras in their cars, install winter tires on a set date, and complete yearly criminal background­s checks, among other things.

“Ride-share companies don’t have to do any of that,” Rizzuto said. “Winter tires, cameras, annual fees; we’re also required to have a portion of our fleet that’s (wheelchair) accessible … all those things cost money that ride-share drivers and companies don’t have to pay.”

“We both pick up customers and take them from Point A to Point B. It’s the same service, so why two sets of rules?” added Chahal.

But the discrepanc­y in regulatory requiremen­ts between taxis and Ubers isn’t the only reason one is suffering more than the other.

Ever since a major taxi insurance provider didn’t renew coverage for hundreds of Hamilton Cab and Blue Line cars in February 2020, local operators have been forced to use facility insurance — a last resort reserved for only the highest-risk drivers.

Hamilton cabbies are now paying insurance renewal rates that range from $12,000 to $23,000 per year — a far cry from the annual $5,000 to $9,000 it used to cost to insure one cab and two drivers. That spike comes despite meagre cab losses due to accidents, Rizzuto and Chahal said.

In the past, cab drivers who wished to move on from the business could sell or lease their taxi plates for additional income. Now, that option doesn’t seem worth it, said plate owner and former Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson. While plates on the private market once fetched roughly $200,000, they now go for only around $10,000 to $15,000, he added.

Asked why the city should extend the discount on inactive plate fees, Ferguson said: “Because people are going to go broke. There’s a lot of people who paid $200,000 for those plates and can’t sell them — let alone pay ($720) for something they’re not using.”

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