D.C. charged with making taxi drivers accountable and improving service

October 4, 2011

To consider the obstacles to taxicab reform in the District of Columbia, you must consider Vincent Gray. No, not the mayor.

I speak of D.C. cab driver Vincent Gray, 66, who pleaded guilty in federal court last October to two counts of felony tax evasion. Over the course of three years, prosecutors said in court documents, he failed to pay taxes on income that, in 2005, exceeded $67,000 a year.

Gray, like three other D.C. cabbies who were prosecuted this year, made the mistake of making their living not by street hails and cash transactions, but by taking Medicaid patients to and from their appointments — that is, via a government program that reports its payouts to the Internal Revenue Service.

Those cabbies, though they appeared not to realize it, were participating in a system with adequate accountability. The rest of the city’s 8,500 cab drivers do not.

Here’s where Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) comes in. The mayor has the opportunity to improve service for residents and visitors and offer a measure of real accountability to the cab industry. But Gray and his pick to chair the D.C. Taxicab Commission, Ron M. Linton, will have to muster the wherewithal to bring change to an industry that has not shown itself to be interested in much more than raising fares and easing enforcement of regulations.

Linton is a longtime city resident with a lengthy résuméand deep roots — a planning consultant who has chaired the boards of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, D.C. General Hospital and, for a time, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He was a reserve police officer for 22 years, including four years as assistant chief of the reserve corps.

He’s 82 years old now, and he’s charged with a job that may well be tougher than all of his other public service combined.

But Linton says he has the vision and the energy, as he demonstrated during a lively D.C. Council hearing on his confirmation last week: After one cab company representative finished his testimony, Linton leapt to his feet and said, “Madame chairwoman, I ask leave to correct an egregious and insulting statement and error of fact!”

He’ll need more fortitude to improve service for those who ride in the cabs owned by drivers and companies who lined up last week to lodge complaints that date to then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s implementation of taxi meters, including too-low fares and overzealous hack inspectors. There was nary a mention of addressing the problems outlined by a platoon of hotel managers who repeated complaints that will ring familiar to regular cab riders — dirty or ill-maintained cars, uneven and inconvenient service, rude and unknowledgeable drivers.

The status quo, after all, serves the industry’s unsavory elements well, and it’s a status quo that would be threatened, for instance, by credit-card readers that could make taxis more convenient and appealing to riders but subject drivers to more scrutiny from the taxman.

Many drivers are scrupulous, law-abiding taxpayers; but the prosecutions mentioned earlier show that others are not, and they operate in what is, with few exceptions, an all-cash business. Most city cabbies are independent businessmen who keep their own records, report their own income and decide which taxes they will pay.

Consider this: According to records from the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, taxi inspectors hand out more tickets for improperly maintained trip manifests than any other violation — more than 6,000 in the past two years, with fewer than 1,000 of them contested. In other words, there is an epidemic among cab drivers of not keeping in order the only official record of how much they drive and earn.

Linton has an appreciation for the bargain at the heart of the current system: “The drivers largely perceive that they’re not earning anything near what they feel they’re entitled to, given the kind of work and effort they put into it,” he said. “So the incentive then in terms of that is to game the system in any way they can get away with it.”

Now Linton has a different bargain in mind. “The strategy is value for quality,” he said. “We feel we will have to find an increased rate for drivers and for investors. But in return for that, we want a significant increase in quality of service.” So drivers can have their fare hike. But they’ll also have to charge their passengers a small per-ride fee — perhaps 50 cents — that will fund more inspectors. And they may soon face mandates to move toward credit-card payments and GPS tracking and hybrid vehicles rather than “independently evolving,” as one taxi company rep promised.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who recently took charge of taxicab industry oversight, said she’s on board with the grand bargain. “It’s a two-way street,” she said.

Linton said he hopes to send his surcharge idea for council consideration in the coming weeks; Cheh said she’s pondering a fuller overhaul of taxicab oversight before year’s end.

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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