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Taxis Face Legal Threat

License Commission Would Limit Age of Cabs

By Jeffrey N. Gell

Nearly 80 percent of Cambridge taxi drivers could lose their jobs if recommendations of the Cambridge License Commission are enacted, a lawyer for the Cambridge Taxi Drivers Association said yesterday.

At yesterday's commission hearing, Boston-based attorney John A. Dalimonte said commission demands that taxis be fewer than nine years old and be fitted with meters capable of printing receipts will raise costs to a level that will force the average owner-operator out of business.

"The commission has said that a charge of even $5,000 can force a driver out of business," said Dalimonte, one of more than 50 lawyers, cab drivers and limousine operators present at the hearing.

Menachem M. Stern, who owns six cabs, said taxi drivers work very long hours to try to make ends meet but do not want to increase fares.

"There isn't anyone who works as hard as a cab driver; we work 12 hours a day six or seven days a week," Stern said. "Insurance has tripled, and increased costs will have to be transferred to the meters because we have to make a living."

"As this proposal is written, the costs would put 80 percent or more of the drivers out of business," Dalimonte said.

Dalimonte proposed that current drivers be exempt from the age regulation and that the meter regulation be quashed altogether.

But Michael Gervais, president of the Cambridge Carriage Coalition and director of operations for Checker Cab, said Dalimonte overestimated the number of drivers who will lose jobs and said the regulations will benefit consumers in the long run.

"Eighty percent of the cab industry in Cambridge does not have 10-year-old cabs," Gervais said. "A couple of years ago, we decided to build a little respect [for the taxi industry] with the city of Cambridge, and even if you have 10 shoddy cabs out of 248, that's a black eye in the city."

Alex Rodriguez, commission chair, said the commission would take the discussion under advisement and vote on the proposed changes tomorrow.

`Vintage' Requirement

But Rodriguez said the commission will probably reject Dalimonte's amendment to the age, or "vintage" requirement, because it is unnecessary.

"A well-operated vehicle that would stand the test of an inspection would be good," he said. "There are several exceptions to the vintage requirement already allowed." Rodriguez refused to elaborate on the exemptions.

William Cavellini, who owns and operates a cab in Cambridge, said performance, not age, should be used to determine a cab's fitness.

"A licensed mechanic inspects these cabs two times a year, plus there is a state inspection for vehicles once a year," Cavellini said. "What we're asking for is for you to look at performance rather than appearance."

Luther E. Allen Jr., an inspector for the commission, said age alone can not determine a taxi's condition.

"I have seen some very good cars beyond the vintage that this requires," Allen said.

Dalimonte said safety, not aesthetics, should be the focus in taxi inspections.

"The new regulation places more emphasis on aesthetics than safety by arbitrarily prohibiting all taxicabs more than nine years old," he said. "Age has no effect on the cleanliness of a cab."

But Mary Williams, who owns six cabs affiliated with Ambassador Brattle Taxi, said poorly maintained cars often pass inspection.

"I don't know how your people are inspecting these cabs when half of them should be burned," Williams said. "Look at all the cars in Cambridge that should be condemned: they're a disgrace to the city of Cambridge."

Williams added that she does not support the proposed meter change because the new meters, in addition to being expensive, have broken down frequently.

Cambridge police officer Leon Lashley said current receipts are illegible and suggested that new standardized receipts be created.

"I realize that new meters have been known to break down, but I can't read the cab number, driver's name, or time on many current receipts," Lashley said. "I believe we should go with a standard receipt with the number of the cab and the driver."

Other Business

In other business, the commission also discussed proposed changes in the code governing limousine operators.

Changes include a new price structure, stricter parking and overcrowding regulations at area hotels and a requirement that limousines with fare structures similar to taxicabs have taxi licenses.

Rodriguez said the changes are necessary to protect the interests of Cambridge's taxi industry.

"If a limo sitting in front of Mass. Ave. picks up five or six people and drives them a short distance for a fee, it looks like [the driver] is doing hackney [taxi] business," Rodriguez said. "Liveries can not do hackney, and we will enforce this."

But Lawrence A. Willwerth, president of Somerville-based Carey Limousine, said the proposed changes discriminate against limousine operators.

"Most people choose us because they want us," Willwerth said. "Under these rules it will prevent my cars from operating in Cambridge."

James J. Rafferty, a Cambridge-based attorney representing Boston Coach, said the proposed changes are also illegal.

"These are private carriers, and they have regulations that govern their conduct," Rafferty said. "There was already an attempt that was rejected in 1989 to regulate non-Cambridge-based livery operators."

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