Trying to go it alone, Prince George’s cabbies say politics is stacked against them

June 19, 2011

This was the year that Abbey Akinrelere thought he would get his piece of the American dream.

The Ni­ger­ian-born cabbie, like many other taxi drivers in Prince George’s County, was eager to become his own boss and avoid paying up to $17,000 a year to rent a taxi from one of the few companies that dominate the county.

Instead, he has put his hopes on hold.

Akinrelere had expected to obtain one of 400 coveted new taxi medallions that were to be issued after the County Council voted last year to expand the number of cabs in Prince George’s.

But the taxi officials gave out only about two-thirds of the medallions that were promised. The remainder may never be issued, if a bill slated for a hearing Tuesday wins approval. That, drivers say, would reverse gains they achieved last year after a nearly five-year political battle.

The measure, sponsored by council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) and backed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), would cap taxi medallions at 1,044, almost the same number now existing in Prince George’s. And it would likely halt a process that would have allowed another 500 to be issued in the next five years. A vote is expected this summer.

Supporters say the proposed cap provides sufficient cabs to serve the more than 5,000 or so calls for taxis each day in Prince George’s.

But opponents, among them Akinrelere and other cabbies who aspire to work independently, say the bill would suppress competition and thwart small businessmen like him. And drivers say that the bill does not take into account the needs of thousands of convention-goers at National Harbor who just go to the curb to look for cabs instead of phoning.

“We are not going back to slavery,” said Getachew Guracha, a leader of the Prince George’s Taxi Workers Alliance, who, along with some other drivers, says that the companies routinely flout safety laws, illegally share medallions and, in some cases, operate multiple cabs painted with the same number, a violation of county law.

Prince George’s is not the only jurisdiction in the region where officials are wrestling with how many taxis their community needs and how the industry should be regulated.

After a bruising battle in the District over switching from a zoned fare system to meters, taxi drivers threw their support behind Vincent C. Gray (D) in last year’s mayoral election. Gray defeated incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D), who had advocated meters. The D.C. City Council is now examining a proposal to provide up to 4,000 medallions, a plan that could exclude many of the city’s 8,000 licensed cab drivers.

In neighboring Montgomery County, the number of cabs was capped a few years ago at 1,000. Montgomery, which has a slightly larger population than Prince George’s but a more robust public transit system, has about 770 cabs in service. Most are owned and rented to drivers by one company, Barwood Taxi.

In Prince George’s, drivers say there is plenty of work to go around.

But Campos disagrees, saying that there will be too many cabs for available fares if changes in a law passed last year remain on the books. Although he voted for the expansion of medallions, he believes a mid-course correction is needed. His proposal would undo most elements of the law, which was spearheaded by then-council president Tom Dernoga (D-Laurel) and overcame a veto by former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).

The Dernoga law ordered the county to issue 400 new medallions and add more in the next few years, depending on how the system was working. About 254 medallions were issued last winter to independent drivers, but the county withheld another 146, saying applicants did not qualify. Those will disappear if Campos’s bill is approved.

“It was an election-year frenzy that Dernoga spearheaded,” said John Lally, attorney for the county’s cab companies. He said elements of the law are unconstitutional, citing a limit on how many drivers can apply for cab driver’s licenses, something Campos’s bill would lift.

“Take a look at any Metro station. You will see a whole lot of cabs standing there because there is not enough work,” Lally said.

Campos cited a study commissioned by the cab companies that recommends one taxi for every 1,000 residents, a formula used in Montgomery County. Campos’s proposal would limit medallions to about one for every 900 county residents and would not add as many as 500 more over the next five years, as the Dernoga law envisioned.

To drivers, the Campos bill is the latest chapter in a long-standing saga favoring companies and keeping drivers down.

“We know the hack office and the department of environment were against us from the beginning,” said Henock Wogderes, one of the leaders of the Prince George’s Taxi Alliance. He won his own medallion and is helping drivers whose applications were rejected.

Many Prince George’s drivers are immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, but many, like Akinrelere, have become U.S. citizens. With citizenship comes voting power. But cracking the insular world of Prince George’s politics is not easy, they said.

Wogderes notes that one of the lobbyists for the companies is former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who headed Baker’s transition team last year. And Wogderes points to the influence of a former aide to Campos, Bradley W. Frome, who is a top official on Baker’s staff and is pushing for the Campos bill.

Many of the cabbies, Wogderes said, worked on Dernoga’s unsuccessful bid for state’s attorney last year and backed council candidates they thought would be sympathetic. Critics say the Dernoga bill was, in essence, a payback for the cabbies’ political support, a view that Dernoga disputes.

The drivers have tried taking their concerns public, enlisting help from the Advancement Group, a social justice nonprofit organization in the District, and lining up support from Partners for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland, an interfaith group. Together, they have sought meetings with council members and Baker, with limited success.

Last month, drivers filed an ethics complaint against Curry and Lally, accusing them of failing to file papers showing that they are lobbying for the cab companies. Shortly after the complaint was lodged, Curry and Lally filed their papers, county records show.

Cab companies and owners are steeped in county politics, donating generously to local candidates’ political treasuries, campaign finance records show.

Campos said none of that matters to him.

“I definitely think that we needed to do something to stabilize the cab system in Prince George’s,” he said. Under the Dernoga law, he said, “there will potentially be less money [for drivers] to go around.”

Akinrelere said that misreads the market. He and others in the taxi alliance say there is plenty of work for cabbies, who either pay $7 a day to be part of a dispatching system owned by Silver Cab or stand at Metro stations and National Harbor to find passengers.

The real problem, he believes, is with the county’s regulatory system, which he says lost his paperwork. Akinrelere recently received a letter from the agency saying he could reapply, but only for a handicapped-accessible taxi.

That, Akinrelere said, would cost him tens of thousands of dollars that he does not have.

“I am out, even though the mistake was made by them,” Akinrelere said.

Samuel Wynkoop Jr., acting director of the county Department of Environmental Resources, said he understands the frustrations of drivers. But there was no deliberate effort to freeze them out, he said.

“We received well over 400 applications,” Wynkoop said. Those that were rejected “were either outright fraud or were incomplete.” Applicants who were turned down can try again, he said.

Frome said the Baker administration wants to take a thorough look at examining the county’s taxi needs.

“We want to study the industry with outside experts to see what we need to do to re-engineer the taxi industry in Prince George’s County,” he said.

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