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Astoria taxi fair draws hundreds of potential drivers

The yellow cab industry made a bold bid to attract drivers to its ranks at the industry’s first-ever job expo Friday, where taxi medallions were hawked as a slice of the American dream to hundreds of prospective drivers.

The fair lured more than 500 people to the second-floor banquet hall at Astoria World Manor on Astoria Boulevard, where a sprawling layout of 40 tables provided spots for representatives from every corner of the industry to pitch their wares — from insurance companies to taxi fleets, medallion leasing agents and car dealerships.

“We’re offering an education to anyone who needs a job, needs a career and wants to get into the yellow taxi industry,” said David Pollack, the executive director of the Committee for Taxi Safety, who spearheaded the job fair concept.

The event, sponsored by the city Taxi and Limousine Commission along with a coalition of cabbie groups, represented a united attempt by all segments of the industry to fill an estimated 500 to 3,000 available driver positions, a gap that has left about 20 percent of all the city’s taxis sitting idle.

TLC Chairman Matthew Daus said the shortage of drivers for yellow cabs — the only type of taxi allowed to pick up street hails — has prompted livery and gypsy cabs to meet the remaining need by illegally taking passengers from the street.

“The licensed, legal drivers trying to do things the right way are being poached by illegal drivers in the city,” Daus said. “There is an excess of demand and reduced supply.”

The expo also emerged as an outgrowth of the Twin Towers job fairs that were held at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, where the entire industry was given a single table.

The cab industry was one of the hardest hit immediately after Sept. 11, when people tended to stay at home and traffic across the city was tied in knots by security checks.

According to Daus, business for yellow cabs is now “close to where it was before Sept. 11, but not all the way back to where it should be.”

For the “black car” or limousine industry, however, business has remained bleak since the instantaneous losses suffered Sept. 11. Downtown financial institutions were the primary source of revenue for many of these companies and the loss of many of those contracts has put drivers in the lurch with severely diminished incomes.

Many experienced black-car drivers, like Mohammad Hussain, 32, of New Jersey, came to last week’s job fair hoping to use their comparable skills to break into the yellow cab industry.

“We cannot make money. We are dying,” he said.

Others in attendance, like 54-year-old Frank Sealy of the Bronx, who now works in boiler maintenance, just wanted to get a steady job.

“I got a job that lays me off every three months. That’s not cutting it,” he said. “I’m gonna do whatever it takes to get a license.”

To hit the road drivers need only to earn a “hack license,” which they can secure in as little as two weeks by taking an 80-hour course, and then get their hands on one of the city’s 12,187 medallions, which entitle the driver to pick up street hails.

Although they are currently valued at around $200,000 a pop, the job expo offered countless ways of financing the purchase or simply leasing one on a temporary basis.

As Daus put it, echoing a theme brought up in countless sales pitches, “You can buy your own piece of the American dream.”

Also on display were a talking taxi meter, an electronic advertising screen that drivers would be paid to have installed on their cars, and an attorney’s office that specializes in beating the system in traffic court.

But at least one man who showed up Friday was looking not for a livelihood, but for a slice of life.

“I always wanted to drive a taxi,” said Don from eastern Long Island, a former private investigator who has saved enough money to last him the rest of his life. “I love New York, love the essence of New York. There’s nothing that captures the essence of New York like a taxi driver.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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