Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Taxi drivers loudly object to what Mayor Vince Gray and the Council propose

December 20, 2011 - 08:45 AM
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The mayor reveals his proposal. (Photo: John Hendel)

Yesterday afternoon the mayor and the D.C. council announced a joint legislative effort to modernize our District's taxis and finally allow all of the more than 8,000 taxi drivers in the District to accept credit cards.

When can District residents expect these upgrades? A year's time or less, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh told a crowd in the Wilson Building yesterday. "I would expect sooner," she added. She began running down a list of new taxicab rules included in the legislation. "We will create a point system to ensure compliance with these rules," she noted. Drivers who failed to comply would be punished and potentially removed.

"How many points?" a man called from the back of the mayor's chambers.

Cheh asked him to be quiet. All heads in the room turned back to examine the person who had interrupted the press proceedings.

The white-haired man of middle age, a slender, fierce presence in a dark-blue shirt, declared that he hadn't heard any rules that would benefit him as a taxi driver. "Have you ever heard of the Fourth Amendment?" he shouted to the government officials. "I just love working at a minimum-wage job!"

Cheh requested security remove the taxi driver, which they promptly did. The councilmember shook off the incident and resumed, but the brief intrusion into her peaceful narrative of taxicab modernization provided powerful context for the discomfort that certain drivers feel for their local government and the changes to come.

Two press conferences unfolded in Mayor Vince Gray's media chambers yesterday afternoon, one from government officials and one from the taxi drivers. The mayor took the podium alongside Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells as well as Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton. Expect big changes, Gray said — taxis will be upgraded to accept credit cards, to feature GPS tracking, to include a panic button connected to the D.C. police that would serve both drivers and passengers, to help green the taxi fleets, include driver verification for passengers as well as a receipt for the trip with full route information listed, and to create a voucher for senior citizens and low-income residents. The D.C. Council plans to officially introduce the legislation today and will hold a hearing in January. All of this happens less than a week after the Taxicab Commissioners voted to raise the per-mile rate from $1.50 to $2.16.

How to fund all these changes? D.C. government wants to add a surcharge of up to 50 cents a trip to help create a "Public Vehicle for Hire Consumer Service Fund," which Linton estimated will generate $8 to $12 million. The drivers are expected pay nothing for the new tech. Funding will ostensibly come from advertisements and the surcharge. Post reporter Mike DeBonis published the legislation yesterday. "It’s not a medallion system exactly, but it’s close," DeBonis wrote about the provision for establishing a public vehicle-for-hire licensing quota. Gray denied any support for a controversial medallion system, an idea for a permit system floated in recent times that would have likely cut the number of taxi drivers in the city, during yesterday's questioning and said it would create "artificial scarcity," although one taxi driver told me he saw the new legislation as "a backdoor to medallions."

The taxi drivers were ready to speak up on their concerns. In the very front row sat Larry Frankel, a cab driver of 17 years and a voice behind the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers. When the press conference abruptly concluded, the silvery-haired man in a brown leather jacket assumed control of any local reporters and held court.

"Drivers have not been brought to the table," Frankel declared after the mayor and councilmembers left the room. He told me he asked the mayor for such a meeting 20 to 30 times. Why no dialogue?

About 90% of what the D.C. officials said yesterday, according to Frankel, was to circumvent the lawsuit that Frankel and others are engaged in, a D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers and Dominion of Cab Drivers case that alleges the city has stolen from the city's cab drivers and calls for a rate study and questions how meetings are conducted. No more than $250,000 remains in a drivers' assessment fund that had suffered from serious reputed misappropriation. "The city councilmembers here are knowledgeable of this theft," he said.

But let's step back for a second and examine two broad narratives that have emerged.

The District officials sell a soundbite-filled vision of our city's taxicab industry and describe an overhaul that benefits everyone. Consider the lather of soothing language they use. Gray said the new surcharge fund "will literally transform the taxicab fleet." Cheh noted that taxicabs "must be seen as part of the District's overall transportation network" and wants drivers to acknowledge and learn their role in the hospitality and tourism of D.C. She used phrases like "proper income," "pride," and "fulfillment" when characterizing drivers' needs. Wells, who Cheh called "a full partner" deserving credit in the legislation, said, "A world-class city has to have a world-class taxi system." He said the District needs to modernize "in full partnership with our drivers." But did Gray, Wells, and the others really partner with drivers? Frankel called out that he and Gray never met regarding the overhaul.

"I had a meeting with drivers just recently," Gray said.

"How come we don't feel included then?" a taxi driver called from the audience.

One taxi driver of 22 years pointed specifically to Tommy Wells' remarks about partnership. "[Wells] never sat down with cab drivers — he's doing the same thing that Fenty did," the man told me. Wells has expressed strong opinions about the District's cabs in the past. In a November Council hearing, Wells referred to taxi drivers as "more hostile" than other vehicles and full of "complete disregard" toward others on the road. As former chair of the transportation committee that Cheh now leads, Wells has been dubious of the Taxicab Commission's effectiveness before. Cheh mentioned that both she and Wells would have preferred "greater structural reform" of the D.C. Taxicab Commission during Monday's announcement.

Frankel and other drivers present said they questioned the bureaucracy that the new legislation would create and the idea that the District's drivers are opposed to upgrading cabs. His personal taxi has included a GPS system and accepted credit cards for the past seven years and he suggested that the market would bring drivers up to speed better than any government push and surcharge, which some drivers thought would discourage people from riding. About a third of taxi drivers already offer credit card readers, Frankel claimed, and he hopes 100% of drivers can add them and beat the District's schedule. He pointed to March as a possibility. The new fare structure would cost drivers more money, he said; the only time they would gain is if a trip is five miles or more, and the District rarely allows for such long rides. The taxi drivers said they don't mind the idea of a uniform taxi color but scoffed at being forced to add more advertisements and to succumb to District mandates and artificial time lines. The vocal opposition of these drivers, some of whom even loudly interrupted government officials, seems liable to become an anchor that will drag down the overhaul that the D.C. Council will today introduce and will likely guide the taxi debate over the course of the next year.

"We're not against the technology," Frankel said. "We're against the people administering it ... It's an attempt to end independent taxicab drivers. They've been doing it since Mayor Fenty."

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