Group Criticizes Concentrated Control of Pr. George's Taxi Firms

By Greg Gaudio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Prince George's County taxi industry is a "complex web" in which a handful of players control the majority of cab companies and the county's most widely used dispatch service to the detriment of drivers, a report by an advocacy group says.

The report, released Wednesday by the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights organization, says concentrated control has hindered competition, leading to long hours and meager earnings for drivers, most of whom are immigrants from Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean.

An attorney for one of the cab companies dismissed the report's findings as "absurd." A spokeswoman for the county's Department of Environmental Resources, which oversees its taxicab board, said the agency would have no immediate comment.

"The Department of Environmental Resources has not had sufficient time to review the report and cannot make a comment at this time," Carol Terry said in an e-mail a day after a reporter forwarded her a copy.

Based on public records and interviews with about 200 drivers, "Dispatching Injustice: Cab Drivers' Struggle in Prince George's County" paints a picture of a profession in which companies charge drivers operating fees amounting to about half of their annual income, forcing them to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week to support their families.

It also alleges that the companies frequently operate in violation of the county code because of a lack of government oversight.

The "Advancement Project's hope with this report is that it will shed light on the current state of the taxicab industry and that it will move the County Council to support the Prince George's County Taxi Workers Alliance," said Advancement senior lawyer Aurora Vasquez.

John Lally, attorney for Silver Cab, said the report recommendations are without merit. "They're talking union issues," Lally said. "There's nothing evil about unions. That's just not what this is. These are independent contractors. I welcome them telling us of any other system in the country that does anything they're proposing."

This year, the council raised the taxi base rate from $1.50 to $3 at the behest of the alliance, a driver advocacy group that was involved in strikes over the issue in winter.

Vasquez said she hopes the council will show further support by acting on several of the report's recommendations, including the revocation and redistribution of operating certificates held by "forfeited" companies, those no longer recognized as legal entities by the state. They should be recalled and redistributed in a lottery to individual drivers, who could then act as small-business owners and avoid paying companies operating fees, the report says.

The report also recommends replacing the paper certificates with harder-to-counterfeit emblems or decals and declaring a moratorium on new taxi driver's licenses until the current drivers are able to make a living wage.

According to the report, certificates allocated to forfeited companies are shared among eight recognized companies that together control 73 percent of certificates. The county code limits the total number of certificates to 785. They can be sold, but not shared or leased, which the report alleges is happening.

Said Vasquez: "It raises a larger question as to what those nonexistent companies are doing with their operating certificates. Why do they have them in the first place, and who's actually using them?"

Lally rejected the notion of any company giving up its certificates, which the county issues to mark authorized cabs. "It's like saying, 'Give somebody your house,' " he said.

Also noted in the report as a possible obstacle to competition is that Silver Cab and Taxi-Taxi, the largest dispatcher in the county, share the same owner.

Lally also denied that allegation. "Back in the old days, a dispatcher would have all these kickback arrangements with the drivers, so it was sleazy," he said. "It can't happen on our system because the computer says where you are. It distributes the call, just by address, to the closest cab." Six hundred Prince George's drivers use the Global Positioning System-based process, which costs them $7 a day.

Some drivers contend that discrimination occurs anyway.

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