February 28, 2012

SOMETHING ELSE — in addition to a new president — was inaugurated in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009. That day, the Fojol Brothers served up their signature Indian food in the D.C. debut of food trucks. Since then, there has been an explosion of these popular mobile vendors, with lunchtime crowds lining up for everything from lobster rolls to Korean tacos. The trucks have added vitality to urban dining and neighborhoods.

The rapid growth of this industry also has created issues that require thoughtful regulation. The job of writing rules that acknowledge the legitimate concerns of traditional restaurants without stifling innovation falls to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which “tries to force everybody into the room . . . and find something that works for everybody,” Helder Gil, legislative affairs specialist for DCRA, told The Post’s Tim Carman.

That seems to have been wishful thinking. The department’s draft rules, after 19 months of study, have fueled a fierce debate. “David vs. Goliath” is how food-truck fans portray the battle against the perceived clout of brick-and-mortar restaurants; the local restaurant association, in turn, professes to want not to ban food trucks but only to ensure a level playing field. The proposed regulations need D.C. Council approval to become law, which means the battle will likely intensify.

That’s too bad, because DCRA’s proposed rules strike a reasonable balance. Mobile vendors would no longer have to abide by the silly “ice cream truck” rule that requires them to drive off when no one is waiting in line. Instead they could pay the parking meter and remain in that spot until the meter expires. Vending development zones would allow neighborhoods some say in how many mobile and sidewalk vendors to allow in an area. DCRA officials stressed that this couldn’t be used to ban vendors but would be an urban planning tool, akin to communities regulating the number of alcohol licenses.

Some further refinement is needed. How the zones would be managed and by whom needs to be spelled out. A restaurant owner may think, for example, that there are too many trucks at Franklin Square, while customers may find that concentration has brought new life to the downtown park. Perhaps truck vendors can do more to deal with trash and other nuisance issues that arise from their operations. We also don’t understand the logic of insisting that trucks selling ice cream and other sweets remain subject to the rule of having to move if no one is standing in line.

Restaurants complain, fairly, that food trucks don’t have to collect sales tax. That doesn’t come under the purview of these regulations: A bill making this fix has languished in the council for the last year and should be passed. Also deserving of attention are complaints from the restaurants about the burdensome regulations they face in setting up sidewalk cafes and undertaking other improvements. Freeing restaurants from excessive regulation is a better way to level the playing field than is piling misery on those who operate food trucks.