A eight-month legislative sprint toward taxi reform is set to cross the finish line later today, when the D.C. Council will take a second and final vote on the most expansive overhaul the local taxi industry has seen in nearly three decades.
The reform bill’s lead sponsor, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), said she has wrapped up a few loose ends and is confident the bill will pass, paving the way for a host of improvements ranging from mandatory credit card readers to a uniform paint color for cabs that could begin to appear within months.
The reforms got a major boost last week when the Office of the Chief Financial Officer certified that there is in fact money available to pay for them. That is, there will be money once the D.C. Taxicab Commission approves a 50-cent-per-ride surcharge expected to generate up to $9.9 million yearly. Previously the CFO’s office had hesitated to sign off on the surcharge revenue, expressing uncertainty about how it would be tracked and collected. But that changed last week after the commission inked a $35 million contract to lease new “smart meters” from VeriFone Systems.
That deal solidified the finances, and for the most part the fiscal implications of taxi reform appear to be worked out. Lawmakers and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said Monday they’ve also identified funding to install the meters in 6,500 city cabs free of charge — meaning drivers won’t be on the hook for the $200 to $500 it costs to install them.
But not all is hunky-dory. Various parties have different grievances, some of which might be addressed in the bill, some of which might not:
Independent cab drivers and smaller cab associations: Several hundred taxi drivers affiliated with the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers picketed outside the John A. Wilson Building Monday morning holding signs with slogans like “No war on independent cab drivers” and “D.C. Gov. wants to charge you .50 cents to spy on you.” But J.R. Clark, the lobbyist working on the SBA’s behalf, said Monday the group isn’t opposed to the whole bill, only certain provisions — particularly the provision that would allow cabs to be tracked by GPS. Clark said drivers are against real-time tracking by taxi regulators but would be willing accept a compromise giving them access to trip data a week afterward. Cheh said she was open to compromise; a package of amendments she circulated with colleagues Monday would require the GPS tracking system to be on only when a driver is actually transporting a fare. A further compromise may be on offer today.
Uber: Cheh’s amendments also would address another main driver concern: Uber, the smartphone-dispatched luxury car service. To placate drivers concerned that Uber might undercut them on price, Cheh is proposing to set the minimum “sedan class” fare at five times the taxi drop rate — currently $3. But that has vexed Uber and many of its customers. While the $15 legal minimum would match Uber’s own current per-trip minimum, the company has recently moved to roll out a lower-priced service in other cities. The $15 floor, Uber argues, would prevent such a service in D.C., thus “handicapping a reliable, high quality transportation alternative so that Uber cannot offer a high quality service at the best possible price.” The company has urged its customers to object; some, including at least one congressman, have made their displeasure publicly known. Cheh sent a note to colleagues late Monday playing defense against Uber’s claims: “I have met with Uber many times, negotiated in good faith, and believed that I had reached an agreement with them last week,” she wrote. “I am deeply disappointed that Uber has decided that it no longer supports this amendment that we negotiated in good faith.” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded on Twitter that his company “got strung out” by Cheh and called the amendment a “price-fixing scheme.” [UPDATE, 10:50 A.M.: Cheh said she will not be offering the Uber price-floor amendment, pending a hearing later this year.]
Larger cab companies: Larger industry players have previously pushed for a medallion system with a strict cap on cab supply, and they continue to do so, with the help of their lobbyists. Organized as the “Taxi Drivers and Fleet Owners Coalition,” the group maintains the only way to effectively finance service improvements is to limit the number of cab licenses, giving the holders of those licenses equity sufficient to secure private loans. But aside from a couple of members, there’s no stomach on the council for medallions, and the deal as currently structured appears to have addressed most costs. Still, concerns remain: Most seriously, under its latest iteration, the bill mandates that fleets make 20 percent of their cabs wheelchair accessible by the end of 2018. Fleet owners find that mandate most burdensome, noting a wheelchair-accessible van can cost upwards of $40,000 while the usual police-surplus sedans can be had for only a few thousand dollars. A letter delivered Monday to Gray and council members says the reform bill will “put individual owners and local fleet owners out of business.” Cheh and the Taxicab Commission have contemplated a system of grants or low-interest loans for wheelchair-accessible cab acquisition using the $1 to $2 million a year in anticipated surplus surcharge revenue, and talks are underway to perhaps secure funding from WMATA by helping to supplement MetroAccess service. But this remains the loosest of the loose ends in the bill.
Losing bidders: While VeriFone won the “smart meter” sweepstakes, at least one of its competitors isn’t taking its loss lightly. Representatives of Creative Mobile Technologies walked the Wilson Building halls Monday trying to convince council members that their deal would be best for the city and that the VeriFone contract award should be rejected. George Lowe, a lobbyist representing CMT, said his client has concerns about the contracting process and is planning an formal appeal. Among other things, the company is arguing that the city left significant cash on the table by opting for VeriFone and that the CMT bid was the only one with significant local business participation. As any close follower of the council knows, a lack of local “certified business enterprise” inclusion can be a deal-breaker for some council members — expect to hear about it on the dais today. But Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton said Monday he’s confident the city got the best deal with VeriFone. About CMT, he said, “they weren’t the lower bidder, and they weren’t the best technically.” And he said the meter installers and servicers under the VeriFone contract will continue to be the same local businesses that currently service D.C. taximeters.