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After years of sparingly licensing new cabs, the city commission that oversees Portland's taxi industry voted today to flood Portland streets with nearly 250 cabs in the near future. And the Private For-Hire Transportation Board of Review approved, with no controversy, the creation of an entirely new cab company—the Tesla-using Eco-Cab—that could add another 51 new cabs to the urban maelstrom in coming years (if Portland City Council says okay).

All told, the votes could amount to 293 new taxis—a 64 percent increase—in a city that's long trailed its peers in offering a vibrant, useful taxi market.

Here's the breakdown (new permits in left column, total permits after the new additions in the right):


This is a big deal, and it's by far the largest single increase to cabs Portland's ever seen. The last increase in permits, in 2012, put 78 new cabs on the street, most of them in the form of a then-controversial new company: Union Cab. Before today's vote, Portland had 460 cabs in circulation.

The decisions, then, show uncharacteristic agility in Portland's slow-changing cab industry as city officials, cabbies, and a new citizen board try to wrap their minds around what services like Uber might mean for the city if they're allowed to re-enter the market in April.

"There aren't enough cabs," Frank Dufay, the city's private for-hire transportation manager, told the board before suggesting the increase. "Maybe it's time to let them have the permits they asked for. It's a very uncertain economic environment right now for them."

In fact, the increase is in large part due to companies like Uber and Lyft, which connect users to private cars. There's a notion that Portland's cab companies need to be ready to compete when—and everybody is pretty sure it's a "when" and not an "if"—those services finally take root here.

Like seemingly every bit of change in Portland's cab industry, though, the new permits are causing heartburn. Particularly from Radio Cab. Affiliates of Portland's busiest cab company—lobbyist Darin Campbell and General Manager Steve Entler—cast the only two votes against approving new permits for existing companies.

Both acknowledged Portland has a dearth of cabs during peak demand times, but say welcoming a glut of new drivers isn't wise. "I just hate overreacting to a situation," Entler said at the meeting. "The process before was to demonstrate there was need for actual permits. Has there been any documentation?"

"I think if you did this to the taxi industry, it would kill a lot of day drivers' incomes and ability to make a living," said Campbell. "At night you're going to see a lot of relief, but this is just complete overkill."

Neither men are accounting for the fact other cities license WAY more taxis than Portland. A recent study by the firm ECONorthwest found Portland has fewer cabs per 10,000 residents than all but one of 11 comparable cities surveyed. We tout 7.5 cabs per 10,000 residents. Cincinnati, the median city in the survey has 17.6. Even lowly, contemptible Seattle has 9.9.

In fact, maybe the brightest news to come from the board's decision today is that the new permits will push Portland well ahead of Seattle in terms of cab-per-resident. If that type of thing's important to you.

The new taxis won't roll out en masse, partly because of conditions the transportation board attached to them. The most important: Each company can only get tags for regular cabs once they add enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles to reach a city-code-mandated 20 percent of their fleet.

Right now—shocker—no Portland cab company meets that standard. Green Cab gets the closest, with 17 percent of its cabs wheelchair-ready. Sassy's Cab, the city's smallest company, has only 3 vehicles that can handle wheelchairs, a lowly 6 percent.

Entler, the Radio Cab manager, says giving accessible cabs the first permits gives unfair advantage to two companies—Green Cab and Broadway Cab—which already have excess wheelchair-ready vehicles they can put into service immediately.

There are legitimate concerns about the financial wellbeing of drivers with a vastly expanded market. There may be enough business to go around at bar close, but that's not the case in the middle of a weekday.

"You never talk about drivers' income," Ashenafe Arage, a driver for Broadway Cab, told board members at today's meeting. And Dufay, in response, acknowledged that concerns over how much drivers earn had made the board "cautious" with new permits in the past.

Most cab drivers work as contractors, and pay a daily fee—called a kitty—for the right to drive for a certain company and use its dispatch services. That kitty is paid whether a driver has 30 fares a shift or three. And since they're contractors, drivers don't legally have to make minimum wage.

Still there was some hope today's decisions might actually better drivers' situations. A Union Cab representative said he'd use the 50 new permits the company was granted to lower the company's already-low kitty.

And board member Kirk Foster said an influx of new permits might put drivers in the catbird seat.

"The drivers will be able to migrate to the companies that pay them better," Foster said. "It may seem counterintuitive, but my feeling is: It will be better in the long run."