D.C. cabbies protest proposed mandates

January 30, 2012

Hundreds of D.C. cab owners and drivers packed into a hearing room at the John A. Wilson Building on Monday to show city lawmakers their displeasure with industry reform proposals that they fear would be financially burdensome.

A bill pending in the D.C. Council, introduced by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) with the backing of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), mandates numerous requirements aimed at improving the taxi industry, including mandatory credit card readers, improved driver training and a single color of paint for cabs. Much of it would be paid for through a rider surcharge.

Most of the drivers who testified said that they recognize the need for service improvements, but they said the bill went too far, particularly in proposing to track their trips via Global Positioning System — an innovation needed, backers say, to analyze taxi trends and improve financial reporting.

Negede Abebe, chairman of the Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers, said the proposal represents an “outright violation of the privacy of the riding public and the driver.” Other drivers bristled at a proposal that would retire cabs from service after seven years or 400,000 miles; another group renewed calls to establish a hard cap on the number of city cabs, creating a medallion system similar to ones used in other cities.

Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, testified that he was moving forward with plans that would place city-installed “smart meters” featuring credit card readers, GPS navigation devices and emergency alert buttons in every D.C. cab by summer. But he said the plan is predicated on the council’s approval of the surcharge — which, set at 50 cents, would raise $8 to $12 million a year, he said.

Linton’s plans cued a debate over who should have responsibility for implementing any improvements. Jack Jacobson of D.C. Taxi Watch, a rider advocacy group, said the improvements should be paid for by the cab industry.

“The District government should not be providing giveaways to pet industries, nor should consumers continue to serve as taxicabs’ personal ATMs,” he said.

Linton defended his plan, questioning whether it would be fair to require cab drivers and companies to pay as much as $3,000 per cab for improvements.

There was also discussion about the need to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. There are about two dozen now.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) has introduced a separate bill that would create regulations for accessible taxis, establishing a capped “certificate” system. Under the bill, half of the accessible cabs would be required to be powered by compressed natural gas; the rest would be powered by “alternative fuel.”

“It’s sad to be in the greatest city in the world and be in a wheelchair and not be able to get a cab on the street,” he said. “I have a plan to get things done.”

Brown appeared Monday morning at a publicity event held by the Miami-based Vehicle Production Group, which is marketing its CNG-powered MV-1 vehicle as a wheelchair-accessible and environmentally friendly option. Fred Drasner, VPG’s chief executive, testified at the council hearing.

But a competitor questioned whether Brown’s bill would allow for other companies to compete. Ray Torreon of Ride-Away, a Beltsville company that converts vans for use by the disabled, said VPG is the only manufacturer whose vehicles would qualify to build the CNG cabs. “It would be a sole-source or monopoly for 50 percent of D.C.’s accessible cabs,” Torreon said.

Brown said in an interview Monday that he was committed to competition and that it was his understanding that several companies could build suitable vehicles under the law.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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