Toronto

Toronto's taxi industry calls on city to cancel licensing fees after massive pandemic losses

Toronto’s taxi industry says the city must temporarily slash or reduce its business licensing fees if the sector is to survive the drastic decline in business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

City council to consider measures to help struggling industry at final meeting of 2020

Beck Taxi says only 300 vehicles out of its 1,800 vehicle fleet were operating during the early weeks of the pandemic. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Toronto's taxi industry says the city must temporarily slash or reduce its business licensing fees if the sector is to survive the drastic decline in business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toronto city council is set to debate that possibility during its final meeting of the year on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

A report going to council lays out a range of possibilities to assist the city's ailing vehicle-for-hire industry, including the possibility of a 12-month moratorium on business licensing fees. 

Those licences cost more than $1,100 annually. Drivers say that requirement could amount to a devastating blow after months of poor business.

"It just helps out," said Thomas Spanidis, the owner-operator of a taxi with Co-op Cabs, on the possibility of waiving the fee. "It's one less nail in the coffin."

While precise figures on the decline in taxi usage are not available, various estimates show an industry that appears to be in a grave financial situation.

Beck Taxi says it was operating around 1,800 vehicles before the start of the pandemic. During the first wave and lockdown in March, that figure dropped to 300 vehicles. It has since rebounded to about 1,200, according to operations manager Kirstine Hubbard.

The Toronto Transit Commission's Wheel-Trans service, which maintains a taxi contract to serve some of its riders, is operating at 35 to 40 per cent of its typical capacity as of November.

"These are private business owners, small business owners, people who have served this city," Hubbard said. "They need that support."

Drivers like Spanidis say the sharp downturn has made it increasingly difficult to stay in business.

"You just go blocks upon blocks without getting a fare," he told CBC Toronto.

He said the speed of the city's recovery in 2021 will determine his future in the industry, though he doesn't expect to have many viable options should he choose to pursue another line of work.

"It's hard," he said. "I've been doing this for over 33 years. Who's going to hire me?"

City to consider extending maximum age of vehicles

Toronto's General Government and Licensing Committee considered options to assist the industry during its last meeting on Nov. 30, but did not reach a conclusion to adopt or strike down any recommendations.

In addition to the possibility of suspending fees for a year, the city report also presented milder alternatives, such as reducing fees by 75 per cent in 2021 or extending the maximum age of vehicles by one year. That would allow taxi drivers to operate vehicles from the 2013 model year into 2021.

The staff report appears to favour the option of extending the maximum life of vehicles. It noted that waiving or reducing fees for a specific industry could be perceived as inequitable and could expose the city to legal challenges.

Councillors involved in the debate  acknowledged the challenges facing the industry and voiced support for some form of assistance.

The taxi industry, said Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, "needs to survive post-pandemic, because at one point in time the office towers will be back, the large events and conventions will be back."

Wong-Tam also described the fees charged to taxi operators as "disproportionately high."

For example, restaurants and bars in Toronto are charged an annual business licence renewal fee of $307.80. The city charges $1,129.16 for the renewal of taxi business licences.

Committee chair Paul Ainslie said the complexities of the issue warrant a full debate when city council meets later this week.

"I think there's still some common ground that can be found and I think those negotiations can be done in a more beneficial manner," he said on Nov. 30.

Abdul Mohamoud, the CEO of Co-op Cabs, is calling on the city to retroactively waive 2020 fees and reduce those in 2021.

"We're hoping that they look at it," he said. "We need some kind of lifeline to make it through this difficult period."

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