Until recently in America's big cities, purchasing a taxi medallion—the city-issued license to operate cabs —was about as sound of an investment as they come.
But with the rise of Uber and other ridesharing services, the value of taxi medallions are plummeting, leading cabbies and fleet owners throughout the USA worried that their industry will be decimated if local and state government doesn't intervene.
"I have had a pretty successful thing," said Gary Karczewski, 65, a Chicago cabbie who inherited his medallion from his father 28 years ago and earned enough to purchase two homes and help send his two daughters to college by driving the equivalent of 80 times around the world. "My hope was to wind down soon and give whatever I could sell the medallion for to my mother. But I am not confident there's a market now."
In Chicago, which has the country's second biggest fleet with roughly 7,000 taxis, the median sale price for a medallion hovered around $70,000 in 2007 before reaching a median sales peak of $357,000 in late 2013.
Since reaching that high point more than a year ago, the value of medallions in the Windy City have sharply declined and sales have ground to a near halt—with the city recording only seven medallion transfers in the first quarter of 2015—as the median sale price fell to about $270,000.
The steady slide, which also is on display in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and elsewhere, has left many owner-operators and big fleet managers pessimistic about their once prized assets.
Cabbies around the country complain that drivers for services like Uber, which use a smartphone app to connect riders with freelancers using their own vehicles, are disrupting the market and playing with an unfair advantage.
Medallion owners also grumble that rideshare services in many markets aren't subject to the same rules of the road. Uber's contract drivers don't face as stringent vehicle inspections, their drivers aren't required to obtain a chauffeurs license, and they can adjust their fares based on demand.
The changing landscape has been put into stark relief by the diminishing value of the taxi medallion in once plum markets like New York, where in recent years they proved to offer a better return on investment than gold, oil and real estate.
As a result of the booming value, the vast majority of medallions in big metros like New York and Chicago were gobbled up over the last several decades by investors and companies that rent the medallions to drivers.
But times are changing. The upstart Uber, which has a reported valuation of $50 billion, collected more than $750 million in just New York City during its first four years of business there. Investor Carl Icahn announced on Friday that he was making a $100 million investment in Uber rival Lyft, calling the company a "tremendous bargain."
"What I think has happened is that competition for consumers has not caused a drop in medallion prices, because medallion values in no way are tied to the riding public," said Uber global policy director Corey Owens. "What's happened is that drivers have found they have better opportunities."
Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which regulates the city's taxi industry, had sold newly-created medallions for wheel-chair accessible taxis for $80,000 each. The bargain price came after the authority put the medallions on the market last fall, with an initial asking price of $475,000, but received no bids.
In New York, taxi mogul Evgeny Friedman is locked in a court battle with Citibank, to whom he owes some $31 million after some medallion loans matured.
Citibank is looking to seize 87 of Freidman's 900 medallions in New York, which has seen medallion prices drop to about $870,000 last fall from a peak of about $1.2 million last spring. Freidman, the biggest medallion owner in the USA, also owns fleets in Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.
In an April letter to creditors, New York taxi commission officials and other stakeholders, Freidman's attorney, Brett Berman, called on industry regulators and medallion lenders to restructure and extend loans for his client and reform the industry.
"If you want to ensure that medallion industry nationwide continues to operate, if you want to have services available to riders that don't have iPhones, if you want to have drivers that are vetted, then there's going to have to be a major change nationwide and city-by-city in terms of how they're going about enforcing the rules," said Ronn Torossian, a spokesman for Freidman.
Even in Nevada, where the taxi industry has successfully fought off attempts by Uber to establish a beachhead in recent years, there are signs that government resistance to rideshare services is softening. Last week, the Nevada Senate approved legislationthat would create regulations that would allow people to hail a ride using a smartphone.