Why Prince George’s needs more taxi licenses

July 1, 2011

In an effort to create economic opportunity for individual taxi drivers and bring balance to an industry long monopolized by a handful of companies, last July the Prince George’s County Council unanimously adopted a bill to increase the number of taxi licenses.

Before the 2010 law was passed, the county had not amended the taxicab code for more than a decade. Yet, just one year later, a new council stands poised to repeal the law, with action possible as soon as Tuesday’s council meeting.

The push for repeal is unwarranted and premature — and it would return Prince George’s to an unfair market that gives cab companies the upper hand and exploits independent drivers. The 2010 statute includes a review mechanism to evaluate its effectiveness, but that has not been exercised. Even without the built-in review, it is far too soon for anyone to say whether the increased number of individual permits — or medallions, as they are called — for independent drivers is flooding the market, as cab companies are claiming. The new law authorized an immediate increase of 400 permits, but the county has issued only about 250, and drivers say their applications are rejected for reasons that are unclear.

In addition to the 400 new medallions, the law expands the number of permits by 75 every year until 2015. It also prohibits the sale of those medallions by individual drivers to cab companies to avoid returning to a corporate monopoly.

This is a classic David vs. Goliath struggle. On one side are the taxi companies with their heavyweight attorney, former county executive Wayne K. Curry. On the other side are the independent drivers, many of whom are immigrants and want what all Americans want — to make a decent living and provide for their families.

This is a subject I care deeply about. My late father, Richard Hensel, provided for our family of eight by supplementing his D.C. firefighter salary as a taxi driver for Diamond Cab in the District. After a heart condition forced him into early retirement from the fire department, he drove full-time for more than 20 years. It was good, honest work, but the hours were long and we saw little of him, because, when he was not driving, he was catching up on sleep.

In Prince George’s County, what has stood between independent drivers and economic security is a system that is reminiscent of the sharecropper system in the Old South in which poor white and black farmers could never get ahead. While cab companies pay the county $200 per year per licensed vehicle, drivers who affiliate with those companies pay a staggering $335 per week — or about 50 percent of their earnings — to essentially rent the license from the corporate holder.

The 2010 law corrected that imbalance by allowing more permits for independent drivers via a lottery system. Alarmed by the prospect of losing their stranglehold on the market, cab companies filed suit against the county in the fall, but the plaintiffs withdrew their complaint, knowing they could not win in court. Instead they persuaded County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) to sponsor legislation to repeal the law. The bill would immediately halt the issuance of about 134 new permits and would cancel the plan for an additional 375 to be released over the next five years. Most significant, the bill allows individuals to sell medallions to cab companies, allowing companies to control as much as 75 percent of the market.

Above all, this debate is one of social and economic justice. These independent drivers are the working poor. They are a fiercely proud bunch, not looking for a government handout but a level playing field on which they can compete fairly.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who is mostly supportive of the legislation, says he wants to take Prince George’s from “good to great.” We will never reach that destination as long as the county sanctions the kind of gross economic disparity that the Campos legislation would perpetuate.

If Baker is sincere in his desire to take the county in a new direction, he should send a clear signal to the council that this bill goes too far and should be significantly amended or rejected.

The writer, a Democrat, represents District 1 on the Prince George’s County Council.

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