As the House’s plan to give taxi cabs the exclusive rights for five years to service the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) came under fire Wednesday, the Boston Democrat who wrote the bill defended the perk as repayment for the industry’s contribution to the original construction of the event center.
The legislation approved by the House in March would restrict app-based ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft from picking up passengers at Logan Airport or BCEC property in the Seaport neighborhood for five years.
BCEC officials on Wednesday, however, began publicly urging the Senate to abandon that position as it prepares its own legislation, warning that the restriction could deter business and hurt the center’s global reputation of being at the heart of the city’s “Innovation District.”
Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat and House chairman of the Financial Services Committee, put out a statement Wednesday afternoon noting that in 1997 the state and the city of Boston auctioned off up to 260 taxi medallions raising $40 million to help finance the construction of the South Boston convention space.
“In an attempt to create balance, this was the genesis of why the legislation included temporary proprietary rights for taxicabs at the Convention Center, given that the facility was built, in part, on the backs of taxicab medallions,” Michlewitz said, his statement referring to the BCEC as the “Boston Convention and Entertainment Center.”
The financing generated 20 years ago through the sale of medallions accounted for less than 5 percent of the overall $850 million construction cost of the BCEC. Michlewitz said his reasoning had been explained to convention center officials before the House passed its bill on March 9.
The Legislature is attempting to put new laws on the books to regulate the burgeoning ride-hailing industry that has cut into the livelihoods of taxi drivers and companies that own and lease limited medallions in Boston.
In addition to imposing new insurance mandates and background checks on drivers for the tech-based ride companies, the House bill would give cabs exclusive rights over the territory in South Boston around the convention center. Cabs would also benefit from protections at Logan Airport where only taxis, limousines and other types of registered livery providers, including the premium UberBlack and UberSUV services, are currently allowed to operate.
Gov. Charlie Baker has filed similar legislation that did not include the prohibitions.
BCEC officials, however, say limiting the choices of convention-goers could hurt its business and believe that there are enough passengers to go around. Taxis provided 130,000 rides to and from the BCEC last year, and are on pace to beat that mark in 2016 with over 30,000 rides counted in the first quarter. One ride-hailing service, according to an official, also provided customers with another 15,000 rides in 2015.
“The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority looks forward to reaching a solution with all of the stakeholders to ensure customers, visitors and event organizers have every available transportation option on the table when they visit the BCEC and Boston,” BCEC spokesman Nate Little said in a statement. “Rideshare services are already part of our transportation portfolio which also includes taxis, buses and public transportation. There is simply not enough supply to meet the transportation demands of our customers who choose to come to Boston from around the world and our business will suffer by taking any options off the table.”
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and the co-chair of the Financial Services Committee, said he has been meeting weekly for the past month with a group of four other senators to put together a bill.
“One of the areas we are looking at is whether or not to include the so-called protection zones for taxi cabs,” Eldridge told the News Service.
“Certainly the comments that I most hear over the past few weeks is if the convention center and that neighborhood is the so-called Innovation District should we be limiting arguably one of the most innovative services from being used by people who work or travel there,” he said.
The taxi industry echoed Michlewitz in its defense of the carve outs for cab drivers, pointing to the money raised through medallions to help pay for the BCEC construction.
“The temporary, five-year exclusion is a small piece of the puzzle. Beyond taxi medallions, the livery and taxi owners are paying for commercial insurance, background checks, commercial airport toll – and the list goes on. We are looking for safety regulations and equal treatment under the law. Uber and Lyft are looking for fast cash,” said Scott Solombrino, spokesperson for Ride Safe MA.
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance wrote a letter to Eldridge on Wednesday urging him to remove the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center provision from the Senate’s bill.
“Both the Seaport and the Airport are notable for a lack of transportation options and a glut of tourists,” Massachusetts Fiscal Executive Director Paul Craney said. “Banning ride-share services like Uber and Lyft from operating in those areas is a bad idea.”