PORTLAND – After listening to more than an hour of testimony, the City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee said Wednesday that it needed more time to digest proposed changes to taxicab regulations at the Portland International Jetport before voting on a recommendation.

The jetport currently caps the number of permits allowing taxi drivers to wait outside the terminal at 40. When the cap was instituted in 2010, the 51 cabs still servicing the airport were grandfathered, and the city expected the number of permits to drop through attrition.

Today, there are still 49 jetport permits, and more than one driver can operate under one permit. The expected attrition hasn’t worked out because 19 permits have been transferred to other independent cab drivers through power of attorney.

But there are 309 licensed cab drivers operating 170 cabs for 109 cab companies in Portland. Many of these drivers want to get into the jetport market, which generated 43,000 fares last year.

The fact that jetport drivers can hold onto their permits indefinitely and transfer them to other companies or drivers has created a property right — and market value — to the permits, even though existing policy states the permits are nontransferable.

“I can see the mistake we made a couple of years ago,” said Councilor David Marshall, who chairs the committee. “We did not anticipate the current value we created when we capped them.”

One possible solution would be to place a term limit on the licenses, according to Jetport Director Paul Bradbury. That could be achieved through a lottery system, in which permits would be allotted every three years through a drawing.

Bradbury, who has the authority to change the policy without getting City Council approval, tried to make changes last year. But he and the city were sued, so they rescinded the changes and the lawsuit was dropped.

“These are difficult policies,” said Bradbury, who expects to present policy changes in September. “I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to do this without significant public process.”

About 15 people, mostly cab drivers working at the airport, said Wednesday that they oppose any changes to the system. But five other cab drivers said it was unfair for the city to lock them out of the airport market.

Having the sole right to wait for passengers outside the terminal allows the drivers who hold the permits, all of whom are immigrants, to earn a living and support their families, said Dustin Brooks, a spokesman for the Preti Flaherty law firm.

“We need our jobs,” said Bashir Shuriye, a former high school math teacher who came to the United States in 2001. “Don’t fix something that isn’t broken.”

The jetport taxi drivers, all independents, said they could not compete for citywide fares with bigger companies, which have websites and dispatchers. But Steve Salamone, who operates an independent cab company, S& S Taxi, said he is in the same boat.

“I don’t see why I should get locked out,” Salamone said.

Meanwhile, William Davenport, owner of Elite Taxi, said the city should hire one company through a competitive bidding process to service the airport. That system would allow for improved service to passengers, he said.

“It’s time the city start thinking about the customer,” he said. 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings