By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday extended the start date for time-and-distance meters in the District's 6,500 cabs to May 1.
The new deadline, replacing the April 6 starting date, came about after Judge Henry F. Greene ruled that the D.C. government had published different timetables for public comment on the final regulations for the new meter system. A city official blamed it on a typographical error.
The ruling was considered a victory by D.C. cabdrivers who sued last week to stop the historic changeover from zones to meters in calculating fares.
"We got exactly what we came for, exactly what we sought," said Jeffrey O'Toole, attorney for the drivers. "Now we have to take things one step at a time. But a victory is always a victory."
The suit, against Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Taxicab Commission Chairman Leon J. Swain Jr., challenges Fenty's authority to set rules and rates for the new system, claiming the mayor assumed authority he didn't have. Fenty decided to go with meters in October, after U.S. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) attached a provision to an appropriations bill requiring the District to switch to meters unless the mayor issued an executive order leaving the zone system intact. The suit contends the eight-member commission was left out of decision-making.
Yesterday's court hearing addressed the cabdrivers' request for a temporary restraining order so they wouldn't have to install meters until the issue is settled. That became moot when the start date was extended. A hearing was set for March 27.
Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said the drivers were trying to accomplish in court what they had failed to do politically. "We are very confident" of victory on the larger issue, he said.
Greene ruled that the District had erred in its Jan. 26 published notice of the final rules for the meter system. One section said the public had 60 days to comment; another mentioned 30 days.
The District ended comments 30 days later, in late February. Greene reinstated part of the 60-day comment period yesterday. That would have given drivers only a few days to install meters between the end of the comment period and the April 6 startup date. So the parties agreed to make May 1 the new effective date for meters.
"There was apparently a typo in the Jan. 26 notice of rulemaking, and we want to make sure this process is transparent," Nickles said.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, is the latest attempt by cabdrivers to stop meters and preserve zones. It was brought by the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association; the D.C. Coalition of Cab Drivers, Companies and Associations; Stanley Tapscott, a driver representative on the Taxicab Commission; and Silverlene Hill, a Northeast Washington resident described as a frequent user of cabs.
"I think the judge did the right thing to give us more time," Tapscott said. "I hope we'll be able to straighten this mess out, to everybody's benefit: the D.C. government, the passengers and the drivers."
Nathan Price, who heads the drivers' coalition, said drivers are trying to research practices in other cities where taxis have meters to bolster their argument that meters will force them to concentrate in busy downtown areas instead of neighborhoods. He said the real test comes with the March 27 hearing.
"This is a minor victory today," Price said. "If we don't look at the big picture, we're dead."