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Proposed surcharge on competition doesn't impress cabbies

Cab Drivers United and AFSCME Local 2500 protest outside the Hyatt Hotel Thursday. They say the hotel unfairly refers hotel guests to Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to slap a $1-a-ride surcharge on Uber and other ride-hailing services drew little praise from cabbies during a protest Thursday at a downtown hotel.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it, but I don’t really see what that would accomplish as far as our concerns, as far as leveling the playing field,” said John Hilt, a city cabbie for 25 years. “It would be a nice way for the city to get money. I’m neutral on that topic.”

As well as an expected $500 million property tax hike proposal, the mayor’s 2016 budget also is set to include a tax on e-cigarettes and other smokeless tobacco products — roughly equivalent to the $7.17 tax slapped on a pack of cigarettes purchased in Chicago. Sources have told the Chicago Sun-Times the $1-a-ride surcharge will be part of a broader package of reforms to level a playing field that has allowed ride-hailing companies to siphon business from taxicabs.

Cabbies have been complaining for months that they can’t compete with ride-hailing companies, and cab drivers Thursday dismissed the surcharge as, essentially, meaningless.

“Our grievances are more along the lines of ride-share cars being treated the same as taxi drivers to level the playing field,” Hilt said. “We want them to have commercial grade insurance like we do, training like we do, complete with a chauffeur’s license.”

Or put another way, cabbie Prince Nwadindu said: “They have to pay what we do.”

Still, Chad Small, another longtime city cabbie, said: “Any step in that direction is a positive.”

About a dozen cab drivers picketed outside the Hyatt Regency downtown. The protesters were complaining that hotel staff give preference to drivers for ride-hailing services over the cabbies lining up outside.

“The [taxi] line moves much slower than it used to,” Hilt said. “I’ve been working this hotel for 25 years. It’s common knowledge among the drivers the way they’ve been treating cabbies.”

Hyatt Regency officials did not respond to a request for comment.