The Montgomery County Council plans to vote today on regulations aimed at upgrading taxi service in the county, long a target of customer complaints about late pickups, rude drivers and excessive fares.
If approved, the legislation would require cab companies to pick up customers within 20 minutes of receiving a call for service. Customers who prearrange service could be picked up no more than 10 minutes later than the time they requested. Fines could be issued if a certain percentage of customers was not picked up on time.
The planned vote comes nearly a year after County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) proposed major revisions to the county's taxicab code to address mounting customer complaints.
Since then, a council committee has softened parts of Duncan's initial plan. But the amended version is still heralded by community activists as a significant step forward.
"It is going to lead to more accountability and increased competition," said Mark Fraley, executive director of Action in Montgomery, which for two years has been urging greater scrutiny of the industry.
Duncan agreed that even with the changes, residents would have "access to more responsive and safer taxi service."
A major component of the legislation is designed to loosen the grip of Barwood Inc. on the county's taxi market. The company is owned by Lee Barnes, a Duncan campaign contributor and a member of the county board that regulates the industry. He holds -- directly or through affiliates -- 434 of the 580 taxi licenses in Montgomery. During the past decade, the county has received hundreds of complaints about service.
Although he proposed the tougher regulations, Duncan has allowed Barnes to exert considerable influence over the panel that oversees the industry. He has appointed Barnes to three of his five consecutive three-year terms on the Taxi Services Advisory Committee. Barnes's current term expires next month. County law allows no member to serve more than two terms, and a spokesman said Duncan will not reappoint him.
Last December, Duncan proposed fostering competition by adding 320 licenses to lure another major company into the county. His idea was rejected by cab operators, who said too many new licenses would cripple the industry by reducing the value of existing licenses.
Over the past six months, County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of the Transportation and Environment Committee, has reworked Duncan's proposal. Under the amended version of the bill, up to 70 additional licenses could be issued next year. The number of licenses could then increase 10 percent every two years, reaching a maximum of 878 by 2011.
"It balances out citizen concerns with keeping taxis flowing in Montgomery County," said County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large).
The legislation also seeks to prevent the county from granting temporary driver's identification cards to cabbies who have not passed the county's driver exam or a criminal background check. Currently, up to half of all drivers on the road have not passed a national criminal background check, county officials said.
Lawrence A. Shulman, an attorney for the Coalition for a Competitive Taxicab Industry, a group made up of Barwood and the smaller companies that operate in the county, said he is generally pleased with the legislation. But Shulman is lobbying the council to change the 10- and 20-minute time standards, which he says are unreasonable.
"By codifying and promoting a 20-minute response time as a standard in this bill, the public will expect this response time in every instance," Schulman wrote to council members last week.
Longtime users of taxicabs are pushing for the 20-minute limit.
Kathleen Morrison, 64, of Bethesda said excessive waits for taxicabs mean "you are late for doctor's appointments, you get sick from getting wet or you are sitting in the freezing cold waiting for a cab."
In the early 1990s, the county received about 20 complaints about service annually, a number that grew to 189 by 2000. In the fiscal year that ended in June, the county received 161 complaints, 85 percent of which were directed at Barwood. The company was responsible for 96 percent of the complaints for late pickups, according to the taxicab unit.