NEW YORK, N.Y.—Chanting “No more tax on drivers’ backs,” more than 100 taxi drivers protested outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan offices Dec. 19, in a last-ditch attempt to stop a congestion-pricing surcharge the state will levy on all taxi trips in Manhattan below 96th Street beginning Jan. 1.
The surcharge will be $2.50 for yellow cabs, $2.75 for green cabs—who are forbidden to pick up return fares in the affected zone—and $2.75 for app-based taxis like Uber and Lyft, but those services can get it reduced to 75¢ if the passengers requested a group ride. It will affect 90% of yellow-cab trips, New York Taxi Workers Alliance head Bhairavi Desai says.
Drivers see the surcharge as one more blow on top of the losses they’ve already suffered to app-based services. “Passengers won’t want to get in the cab when it’s $5.80 to press the meter,” says Michael Wong, 60, a yellow-cab driver and medallion owner since 1985. “It’s going to come out of our tips.”
“The passengers will give less tips,” says Frederick DeSouza, 54, of Queens. “More importantly, we’ll have less passengers in our cabs.”
“The governor really has to review this law immediately, because it is unjust,” says Abraham Lobé of Brooklyn. “It’s charging drivers to come to Midtown, where they’re supposed to do their business.”
Drivers report losing substantial amounts of their income since app-based services arrived in 2012, disrupting the city’s restrictions on the number of taxis that were intended to limit competition enough for drivers to make a living. Dalib Singh, 62, an owner-driver who commutes from Suffolk County to drive seven days a week, says his fares are down about one-third, costing him $70 a day in lost income on average. Lobé, an immigrant from Cameroon who’s been driving for 22 years, says he used to get 35 to 40 fares in a 12 to 14-hour night shift. Now, he averages 15 to 20, and “40% of the time we drive empty.”
They also expect that the congestion surcharge will affect the type of fares they get, as the $5.80 meter drop—also including the $2.50 base fare, the 50¢ surcharge for public transportation, and the 30¢ city surcharge to make cabs accessible to the disabled—would discourage passengers from taking short trips. Uber and Lyft, they say, have cut most dramatically into airport runs, which virtually guarantee a return trip, at a flat rate of $52.80 to Manhattan.
“I don’t go to the airport,” says DeSouza, who has been driving for 18 years. “It is too stressful to pick up small fares, but it’s hard to get long distance.” He works days and picks up 10 or 11 fares in a typical shift, all starting in Manhattan.
Proponents of the congestion surcharge say that it will reduce traffic and air pollution, and help fund the city’s ailing subways. The Riders Alliance coalition estimates that charging all drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street up to $11.50 a trip could raise up to $1.7 billion a year for transit improvements.
Gov. Cuomo, however, included congestion pricing in his budget for fiscal 2019 after making it clear that raising taxes on millionaires was not on the table. In 2011, he pushed to have the state tax on income over $500,000 reduced from 8.97% to 6.85%, and to 8.82% on income over $1 million. Cuomo, dismissing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support for raising the 8.82% rate, has called it “dead on arrival” and “a non-starter in the legislature.”
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment from LaborPress.
The drivers’ plight has won sympathy from some members of the city Taxi and Limousine Commission, which chose not to vote on the congestion-pricing plan. “Many of the commissioners feel very strongly that it does harm to the taxi industry and especially the driver,” Commissioner Bill Aguado told LaborPress. “It’s one more attack on the driver, the person who can least afford it.”
Traffic is a problem in Manhattan, he added, but “it’s ridiculous to put the burden on the driver.” The plan has many loopholes that benefit the large app-based companies, he says, but it’s a state law, so the TLC does not have power over it.
A group of owner-drivers has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the state’s action in imposing the fees. Drivers shouldn’t have to pay a “suicide surcharge,” says Carolyn Protz of the NYC Taxi Medallion Owner Driver Association. “We didn’t cause the congestion. We’re mandated to be on the street. Uber’s not.”
“We’re doing half the trips we were doing in 2011,” she adds.
And that, says Desai, makes the congestion-pricing surcharge “a real existential threat” for drivers. Eight in severe financial distress, including three yellow-cab drivers who owed more on their medallions than they were worth, have committed suicide since November 2017.
Dorina Nitescu’s husband, Dan, was a close friend of Nicanor Ochisor, a fellow Romanian immigrant and owner-driver who killed himself in March. Dan Nitescu died of a heart attack earlier this month, she says. He was 65.
“He couldn’t take the stress,” she says. “The pressure of this situation destroyed him.”
She still owes $200,000 the couple borrowed against the medallion to pay for his heart surgery, she adds.
“I’m doing 12-13-14 hours every day,” says Mohammad Mahbub, a Bangladesh-born owner-driver in his fifties who lives in Jamaica, Queens with his wife, elderly in-laws, and two children.
He has to pay $4,000 a month for the mortgage on his medallion, plus $1,500 for insurance and workers’ compensation, and says he fears that if he is even one month late with a payment, his mortgage broker, Omega Brokerage, will repossess his cab and medallion.
“I have no life at all,” he says. “Dying is not the answer, because they’re still going to go after the house, my kids.”
Editor’s Note: A New York State judge on Thursday, December 20, issued a temporary restraining order against the congestion fee that was schedule to go into effect on New York City taxi and for-hire-vehicle rides below 96th street in Manhattan starting on January 1, 2019. The hearing has been set for January 3, 2019. The fee cannot go into effect until after the judge issues his decision.