Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Our D.C. taxicab industry is wearing Ron Linton down

January 11, 2012 - 05:05 PM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

More than a hundred taxicab drivers piled their way into One Judiciary Square this morning. Perhaps closer to two hundred. I've reported on the D.C. Taxicab Commission's hearings in the past, yet at the October session on cab passengers who dodge paying the fare, I recall fewer than a dozen or so people. But anger's built. Taxicab drivers are concerned — about fare increases, about the vast modernizing overhaul that Mayor Vince Gray has proposed, about the nature of the dialogue between drivers and authority. And today they were ready to speak.

Upon first arriving at One Judiciary Square a little after 10 a.m., I saw a long line of drivers snaking out toward the front door, 40 or 50 men and some women waiting to get it in. We all needed to pass through security. "Sweet Jesus," one man muttered when his elevator opened to reveal the sight.

Another man entered the line behind me but knew nothing of the Commission's hearing that was already happening beyond the security line. "What is this?" he asked me. "Some kind of demonstration?"

I told him what was happening.

He laughed. "That's why I couldn't catch a cab! Looks like all of Africa's in here."

Inside the chambers the mood grew quickly fast. At question was the set of changes announced last month, raising the per-mile rate from $1.50 to $2.16 and eliminating many surcharges, among other small changes and requirements. They'll take effect as soon as February. But today, with a couple hundred taxi drivers, what again emerged was the outrageous friction that divides Commissioner Linton, appointed earlier this year, and the host of drivers he oversees. Linton is an older man, in his 80s and stocky and generally giving off a formal, patient demeanor, but today stretched the man. Here's what he looks like. The Chambers were packed, standing room only, and all eyes penetrated Linton for more than two hours.

Chocolate strawberries
Entry line. (Photo: John Hendel)

"I don’t care what you think of the individuals up here," Linton told a concerned driver halfway through the hearing, his own face a hard frown at this point. "I didn’t ask for this job … But I want to demand respect for the Commission as an instrument for the people of the District of Columbia.”

Over and over, Linton encountered a crowd that was ready to cheer against him. After Carolyn Robinson of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxi Drivers gave her testimony, the crowd burst into applause. Clapping in particular seemed to anger the commissioner and was a recurring problem throughout the hearing.

"This is not an entertainment venue!" Linton called out. "This is a regulatory hearing!”

After the commissioner called out new car service Uber as "illegal," more cheering happened and again threatened his patience. The crowd continued to shout at different moments. When one woman testified that the new rate was, in fact, "a win for drivers," a bellow of "Nooo!" filled the room.

“I will terminate this hearing if you proceed!” Linton said as he made liberal use of his gavel. One word he exclaimed repeatedly throughout the two hours: "Order!"

One driver yelled: "I called and I didn’t get my name on your list!”

"Then you didn't call in time," Linton retorted, visibly flustered.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

The drivers offered a litany of offenses and frustrations as well as pleas to be heard. One made a point that drivers weren't "inhuman" and needed to be safe. Another referred to "the poorest paid cab drivers in the country." One man asked if the commission had ever held a formal hearing on the amendments in question, which caused Linton to reply that they were holding it right then. What was waged in the chambers was not merely quibbling over surcharges, as DCist rightly notes about the hearing, but a psychological strain that's appeared ready to burst for a long time. We saw these same issues emerge at the mayor's Dec. 19 taxicab overhaul press conference, where drivers interrupted the government officials and yelled about their exclusion and adamantly wanted to make their own case about how their industry's regulations were evolving. Linton heard testimony after testimony and attempted to remain calm but that frown and defensiveness and his own subtle frustration were more than clear. I can't imagine these internal industry problems, deep and institutionally enmeshed, will get any easier as taxis are forcibly modernized in the year to come. Five decades ago, Linton worked on the 1960 Kennedy campaign. He's been chief clerk of the Senate Public Works Committee. He's done a lot. But what he faces now is broader local institutional gridlock and he looked like he had experienced far happier days than this morning at the hearing. Did Linton understand these challenges going in last summer?

Linton, after all, didn't ask for this job. He was asked to perform it. He said so himself today.

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