Arlington taxi drivers object to new cabs, demand bill of rights

About 40 Arlington County taxi drivers staged a demonstration outside the County Board’s offices Monday to protest the board’s unwillingness to rewrite its taxi ordinance to add protections that drivers say are sorely needed.

The drivers, primarily African immigrants who belong to Arlington United Taxi Operators, said the board should not agree to add 65 new cabs to the county’s 765-cab fleet, as it is scheduled to do Tuesday night.

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Instead, they want a drivers’ bill of rights to protect them from what they consider unfair treatment by cab companies in Arlington. They also want the county to assure them by law that they can switch from one company to another after a one- or two-year contract expires.

“We don’t even know what those contracts are,” said Berhane Michaels, a driver who has spoken several times before the County Board on taxi issues. “The company says ‘Sign here’ and won’t give us copies.”

The County Board voted 3 to 2 last month to allow seven cab companies to continue to control the operating certificates, rather than switch to a new system that would award certificates to the drivers. Mary Hynes, the County Board chairman, said she and others have met multiple times with the drivers, but under Virginia law, the board cannot insert itself between the cab companies and the drivers they hire under contract.

“There are certainly things going on that I don’t think any of us think are good,” Hynes said. “The question is whether the right solution is to rewrite the ordinance. . . . I haven’t been presented yet with an option that is better than the current system we have.”

Several drivers said Monday they had been unfairly fired, without a way to appeal. Those who rent their cars from the companies said they were not refunded the required $500 down payments they made for the cabs when they started driving.

“We have to work long hours, and that puts the life of passengers in jeopardy,” said Ahmed Benaddi. “Arlington residents should know that drivers behind the wheel are working . . . 13 hours a day.”

The board vote planned for Tuesday evening would add 55 standard cabs and 10 wheelchair-accessible cabs to the fleet. The 4.2 percent growth of the county’s population in the past three years, the 9.5 percent growth in jobs over the same period and the 17 percent increase in dispatched taxi trips in the past two years makes more taxis necessary, the county staff said. Both Virginia airports report more arriving passengers are taking taxis, up 9.7 percent from 2009 to 2011. Local hotel occupancy rose 9.5 percent in the same period.

A telephone survey in June of all Arlington licensed taxi drivers found that 39 percent of drivers said there are too many cabs on the roads. But the county hack inspector and local hoteliers disagreed, saying there is a particular need for more during morning rush hours. As of 2010, there were 3.7 cabs per 1,000 people in Arlington. Alexandria had 5.07 per 1,000; the District 11 per 1,000; and Fairfax County 0.57 per 1,000.

Hynes said the county is working on creating a system of public accountability for the taxi companies, requiring them to provide vehicles that are not aged and in good repair, to report how many hours their drivers work, and to make public the contracts and fees drivers are charged.

“It’s not like we are ending the conversation,” Hynes said. “We are just saying we don’t choose the solution you are providing.”

 
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