‘Smart meter’ fight rolls on

August 27, 2012

The city can continue installing its new “smart meter” system in D.C. taxicabs for now, a Superior Court judge ruled Monday. But the efforts to roll out much-demanded features such as credit card meters and satellite navigation in the District’s approximately 6,500 cabs still face serious threats from losing bidders for the $35 million city contract.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) touted the installation of the first new meter, from California-based VeriFone Systems, at a Wednesday news conference. That prompted one of VeriFone’s competitors, Creative Mobile Technologies, to sue to stop the installations at least through the end of this week, when an administrative law judge handling a contract protest is set to decide whether the installations can proceed.

At a court hearing Friday afternoon, lawyer A. Scott Bolden argued on CMT’s behalf that allowing the rollout to continue would make it harder for the city to reverse course if the Contract Appeals Board later judges the VeriFone award improper.

“Arguably, once the horse is out of the barn, you can’t get it back,” Bolden said.

But District lawyers argued that the board has historically not been shy about invalidating contracts and making losing bidders whole, and that, moreover, CMT hadn’t proved that it would be harmed in any way if the installations continued.

Judge Laura A. Cordero agreed in her ruling. “Evidence presented at the hearing . . . showed that very few meters are currently being installed and will be installed in the next five business days,” she wrote. “Furthermore, there is no indication that any expense in removing [VeriFone] meters . . . would be borne by [CMT].”

Monday’s ruling doesn’t mean clear sailing for the new meter system. The contract protests filed by CMT and fellow competitor RideCharge continue, alleging irregularities in the procurement process and the ranking of bids. The administrative ruling expected this week could halt the system’s installation while the wrangling over the contract is resolved — a process expected to last through October.

Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, said only a half-dozen meters had been installed by Friday; by the end of the week, he said, about 30 meters could be installed.

But he said that if VeriFone’s work is halted, it would end not only meter installations, but planning and logistics work that will eventually allow installations to ramp up to as many as 100 per day by next month. “To have to stop just throws everything off cycle,” he said.

If the rollout continues uninterrupted, Linton said, all of the city’s cabs should have the new meters by November.

Bolden said Monday that his client’s challenge is “not over yet.”

“We still have some levels of review to go through, and we’re going to exercise all of our legal options,” he said, including returning again to Superior Court for a restraining order if the appeals board declines to issue its own stay.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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