- (Photo: Jay Westcott)
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?