Council pushes through crowded agenda

July 10, 2012

The D.C. Council prepared to recess for the summer Tuesday, enacting a sweeping overhaul of taxicab regulations, easing enforcement of federal immigration laws, making life tougher for traffic-ticket scofflaws and defeating an effort to deny some neighborhood parking permits.

Tackling a crowded agenda, council members sat into the evening, pushing through legislation and appointments that will help define their legacy for 2012. Unlike at several past meetings, members avoided personal attacks as they rushed to approve several far-reaching pieces of legislation.

But the meeting underscored how the District government continues to struggle over how to best manage a rapidly changing city whose residents are demanding more innovative transportation options.

In the first major rewrite of taxi regulations in decades, the council gave final approval to legislation that will require credit card readers and Global Positioning System devices in all District cabs. The bill, which follows nearly two years of study and negotiation, also mandates that cabs gradually adopt the same color and that drivers replace older vehicles with newer ones.

“We are a world-class city, and the aim is to establish a world-class taxi industry,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the committee with oversight over transportation issues.

But the council’s efforts to modernize the industry were nearly sideswiped by a public outcry over plans to regulate a popular luxury car service, Uber.

Initially, Cheh included a provision that would require Uber to charge a minimum fare at least three times as much as the starting cab rate. That would have mandated a minimum fare for Uber of about $15. Uber, a California-based company with a loyal base of local customers, resisted the proposal.

In the hours leading up to Tuesday’s vote, the company, which provides smartphone-dispatched service, helped steer thousands of clients to council members. After some members vowed to defeat the proposal, Cheh requested that the council postpone the debate until later this year.

Several council members said their constituents are turning to Uber — which charges about $20 for a sedan ride from Dupont Circle to Union Station — because cabs can be unreliable and hesitant to pick up passengers in all corners of the city.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he recently used the service because he didn’t feel “comfortable” waiting outside for a taxi.

“If taxis provided a good product at a good price, they would have nothing to fear from Uber,” Catania said.

The decision to delay regulation of Uber angered taxi drivers, many of whom were already opposed to many of the other provisions of the reform bill, including one that 20 percent of company-owned cabs be handicapped­accessible by 2018.

Hundreds of taxi drivers picketed the John A. Wilson Building and packed hallways leading to the council chamber. After it was approved, several said they felt betrayed.

“We can’t afford this,” said Zecarias Berhe, 60, a 38-year driver from Arlington.

Larry Frankel, chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers, said drivers are considering a strike or other protests that could “tie up traffic.”

Taxi drivers questioned how they would pay for the new smart meters, but Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced Tuesday afternoon that the city would pick up the cost.

In other action Tuesday, the council gave final approval to a bill that could set up a showdown with federal officials over immigration policy.

The proposal states that the D.C. Department of Corrections will detain only suspected illegal immigrants known to be dangerous criminals and limit any detentions to 24 hours. The federal Secure Communities program calls for local jurisdictions to hold a suspected illegal immigrant who has been arrested for 48 hours so ICE can interview the detainee and decide whether to seek deportation.

The council also gave final approval to a measure clarifying that the owner of a vehicle is liable for speed- and traffic-camera tickets. If a ticket is issued, it will be up to the owners — including rental car companies — to recoup the fine from the driver.

In another debate involving drivers and vehicles, the council defeated legislation that could have denied residential parking permits to some residents who move into newly constructed condominiums and apartments.

The bill was designed to make it easier for developers to build housing units in dense neighborhoods without inciting community opposition over the scarcity of on-street parking. But council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) organized a majority against it after deeming the proposal “bad public policy.”

“This is something that ought to be left to the marketplace,” Mendelson said.

The council also voted to reappoint Natwar M. Gandhi to a third full term as the city’s chief financial officer and approved the nominations of three members of the new city ethics panel, including former attorney general Robert J. Spagnoletti as its chairman.

But the council delayed a decision on Gray’s nominee to sit on the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority board, Roderic L. Woodson. The postponement, which effectively killed the nomination, came after labor leaders argued that Woodson was too closely aligned with business interests.

The council will recess next week until Sept. 15.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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