By Tristan Hallman
Taxi driver Erhan Tuncel, 52, bought his yellow taxi medallion 14 years ago. Once he turns 62, he’ll have to either drive 150 seven-hour shifts per year, or sell the medallion at whatever the market rate is.
Thanks to the city’s “owner must drive” rule, he can’t lease out the medallion to other drivers, potentially robbing him of steady income in his golden years.
“I shouldn’t have to rely on my kids,” he said. “I want to be able to lease my medallion so me and my wife live happily ever after.”
The city Taxi and Limousine Commission contends the “owner must drive” rule keeps alive the dream of individual medallion ownership. But Tuncel and other taxi owners say that the regulation is akin to slavery. They found a champion in one Manhattan city council member, who has taken up their cause over the objections of the commission.
“These are people that have worked hard and long for these medallions and I think we should be sensitive,” said the bill’s author, Upper East Side City Council Member Jessica Lappin.
Lappin’s bill would waive the owner-must-drive rule for any military veterans who have served in times of war, spouses of deceased medallion owners who inherit the medallions and drivers age 62 or older who have driven for at least 10 years.
She has the support of several taxi drivers associations.
“Most people don’t appreciate what it’s like driving a cab,” said Steven Bulatowicz, operations manager of the League of Municipal Taxi Owners. “You’re out there five or six days a week for 12 hours per day. It’s hard. It’s grueling, grueling work and it takes a toll.”
The rule doesn’t apply to individual medallion owners who have owned their medallions continuously since before 1990, when the rule went into effect.
Some of the grandfathered-in individual drivers have leased their medallions to leasing agents. The leasing agents make a small profit off managing the leases.
David Yassky, a former City Council member and current chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said at a recent City Council Transportation Committee hearing that eliminating the owner-must-drive rule would limit the supply of individual medallions and put them in the hands of leasing agents who don’t drive their own taxis.
“We believe very passionately that the owner-driver segment is worth preserving, and we don’t want any rule that will make them disappear,” Yassky said.
About 40 percent of the city’s medallions are for individuals. The rest are corporate medallions, which are bought by companies for fleets.
Tuncel bought his medallion for a little more than $200,000. Medallions now go for about $700,000.
While it appears that Tuncel is in line to make a killing off his investment, he said that’s not the case. He has refinanced the loan on the medallion to replace his vehicles—he needs another new car to replace his 2006 Toyota Sienna in August—and to put his two kids through Dowling College. He now owes more on his loan than he did when he bought the medallion.
By age 62, he will have driven for 25 years. He believes he has put in enough time behind the wheel.
“If God lets me get to age 62, I want the option to be there,” Tuncel said.
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