D.C. cab service could get overhaul

December 18, 2011

District taxi users could see sweeping changes in every ride — including mandatory credit-card readers, better-trained drivers and a single color for cabs — if a reform bill proposed by a key D.C. Council member and backed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray succeeds.

Addressing the most pervasive rider complaint, the bill would mandate electronic payment options such as card readers and pay-by-phone within a year, according to two Gray administration officials familiar with the legislation. Other improvements would include mandatory satellite navigation systems and “panic buttons” drivers and riders could use to summon emergency help.

“I would call it a forceful modernization of the taxi industry,” one official said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the bill ahead of a Monday news conference at which Gray (D) and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) are expected to unveil the bill.

The legislation comes a week after the D.C. Taxicab Commission authorized the city’s first taxi fare increase since 2008. Under a rule approved by the commission but still subject to public comment, the per-mile rate would increase from $1.50 to $2.16, while the initial “flag drop” rate would remain at $3. Most surcharges would be scrapped.

In the months leading up to the commission’s vote, Chairman Ron Linton indicated that fare hikes should be tied to a “significant increase in quality of service” — including new payment options and more modern cabs.

The fare change did come with taxi age and mileage limits, but Cheh said Sunday she was “disappointed” that more ambitious service improvements were not directly linked to the fare increase. “This is part of the deal, a quid pro quo,” she said. “We want an enhanced level of service and better overall performance.”

Besides technological improvements — which could take the form of New York City-style passenger terminals — the bill includes a plan to phase in more fuel-efficient vehicles. There also would be new training requirements for drivers. Cheh said cabbies would have to pass a course on city geography, tourist attractions and “cultural awareness and sensitivity.”

For the first time, cabs would be required to sport a single color. That is done in New York, Chicago and Boston, but the idea has been resisted by the fractious D.C. taxi industry. Cheh said she preferred white, but it was unclear whether the council or commission would pick the color.

Some improvements would be funded through a surcharge on taxi rides. The commission would set the amount; Linton has spoken in the past of a 50-cent charge.

The bill would not materially change the structure of city taxi oversight, although some council members have spoken in favor of disbanding the Taxicab Commission and moving regulatory functions to the Transportation Department. Cheh said Sunday she would give the commission some time to implement reform in its current incarnation.

Cheh, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, said she would move swiftly to bring the bill to a vote. A hearing likely will happen in January, she said.

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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