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Taxi lobby's City Hall spending falls short against Uber, Lyft over LAX

Taxi lobby's City Hall spending falls short against Uber, Lyft over LAX
A car with Uber and Lyft decals leaves the departure terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council's vote Tuesday to allow ride-hailing  companies to pick up passengers at LAX severely undercut the taxi industry's last competitive advantage in the city.

The loss came despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars taxi executives have spent over the decades on political lobbying and contributions. Although it's not at all unusual for business interests to spend that kind of money at City Hall, it is uncommon for a City Council vote to get so much grass-roots attention.

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"If there's one thing that unites people in L.A., it's the necessity of getting around," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School.

Over the last two years, eight taxi companies spent $595,500 to lobby elected officials in Los Angeles City Hall. Uber and Lyft spent $392,000 during that same period of time.

Uber did not donate to individual politicians. Lyft contributed a total of $5,300 to nine City Council members. Those numbers are a tiny fraction of contributions from the taxi industry. Cab franchises, which have a much longer history in the city, donated more than $257,000 to City Hall politicians dating back to 1998, records show.

At City Hall, cabs are regulated by the Board of Taxi Commissioners, which has capped the number of city taxis that can operate at 2,361. The panel also sets the rates taxis can charge, meaning choosing a cab for a ride from LAX to downtown would be a standard $46.50, with $4  added to all trips originating at the airport.

"The airport is the major lifeline for taxi drivers and the industry here in L.A.," said Saba Waheed, research director of the UCLA Labor Center.

Fast-growing ride-hailing firms such as Uber and Lyft are overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission. Some arriving LAX passengers already have been taking shuttles off the airport property so they can use the app-based ride services.

A study from the UCLA Labor Center underscored how important LAX is to the taxi industry. From 2013 to 2014, taxi revenue across the city dropped 9% and trips dropped 18%. However, LAX remained the one bright spot. Drivers picked up 15% more airport passengers during that time.

Lyft and Uber already are allowed to pick up passengers at airports in San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland and Orange County. Lyft also has agreements at the Burbank and Santa Barbara airports.

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