Despite widespread concerns, D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC) chair Ron Linton intends to rapidly overhaul the city’s taxicab industry in the coming months. In testimony before the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation on Wednesday, the pugnacious and frequently absent taxi chair told Councilmember Mary Cheh that he plans to mandate the installation of “smart meters” with tracking devices in all District cabs by year’s end, a move which may be unconstitutional.
Additionally, Linton called for the removal of older taxis (which he’s previously defined as more than five years in age), a doubling of hack inspectors (who drivers report suffering widespread abuse under), a so-called fare increase (which drivers contend isn’t much of an increase at all, and which Linton may have played an inappropriate role in crafting), as well as a $0.25 to $0.50 surcharge on each ride (which will go to the commission, not drivers).
Linton also called for the installation of a panic button in all cabs. Coincidentally, Linton told ABC 7 Friday that there’s been a string of drivers assaulting their passengers. “What we’re seeing is an increase in [drivers] physically manhandling their fares,” said Linton, who offered little if any evidence to substantiate his accusations. “Striking them. Pulling them out of their cabs. One woman was pulled out by her ankles.”
During Linton’s Januarytestimony, more than 400 drivers showed up to voice their opposition to his efforts. Many said they may be forced out of business if the changes are forced through at a time when drivers are financially strapped.
Linton continues moving full steam ahead with his overhaul despite the fact that he’s frequently absent due to health issues, and when he does interact with drivers he’s often condescending and dismissive. What’s more, most of Linton’s staff treat drivers similarly, leading to a chaotic and hostile environment for the average driver.
A recent Washington Post editorial questioned Linton and the Gray administration’s taxi initiatives, as well as the haste with which they are being carried out. “At the very least, the city could commission an objective study on these and other contentious topics. There’s too much argument by anecdote on all sides of the debate,” the Post noted.
The Post also questioned Linton’s use of a single company for the smart meter mandate. “If drivers must install new equipment, why not give them the specifications and let them shop around, rather than have the Taxicab Commission choose a single vendor, as currently contemplated?” asked the Post.
Linton claims that the smart meters will be installed at no cost to drivers. “I cannot say this too often,” explained Linton, “neither the driver nor the companies will bear any cost.”
But this calculation fails to factor in the cost to drivers and passengers of hearing ads play all day long, something the smart meters will be equipped to do.
Like much of D.C.’s taxi policy, the move to smart-meters-with-advertising is based on what New York City has done. But the backseat ads are unpopular in the Big Apple where passengers find “those bleating television screens… [to be] a standard annoyance,” according to The New York Times.
In addition to being unpopular, D.C.’s smart meters may not be legal due to the GPS system which can track both drivers and passengers. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the government’s use of GPS tracking to follow a criminal suspect was not constitutional.
The Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers, which represents 3,000 independent drivers, says it will consider pursuing legal action if the District moves forward with tracking devices.
Two other driver groups, D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association and Dominion of Cab Drivers, have already filed suit over DCTC’s attempted amendments to Title 31, the regulatory code that governs the industry.
The proposed amendments require drivers to buy a new car every five years and implement steep fines for minor infractions (for example, initially DCTC sought $1,000 fines for over or under inflated tires).
According to Linton, the Title 31 amendments “have moved through a painfully long rulemaking process.”
But that statement may be misleading.
While the process has been long and painful, particularly for drivers, there has been little in the way of a proper rulemaking process.
When drivers attempted to submit a petition with more than 900 signatures in opposition to the proposed amendments, they were pushed out of DCTC’s office and referred to as “a mob” by interim chair Dena Reed, who locked the doors, shut off the lights and called the police. (This performance was repeated for ABC 7′s Mark Segraves.)
At a “public” meeting on Title 31, Reed once again called the police, leading to the arrest of two journalists, including myself, for taking pictures and video. A third reporter, Post columnist John Kelly, was prevented from reentering the hearing after he stepped out to investigate the arrests. Kelly noted:
“When I tried to go back in to the meeting, a very large uniformed Park Police officer barred my way. Just following orders, he shrugged. I don’t know if there were any reporters in there while Reed and the taxicab commission finished their business. Hmmm. I wonder if that’s what she wanted in the first place.”
At another “public” hearing of the Commission, Reed posted signs on the wall that read, “NO TELEVISION CAMERAS. NO VIDEO TAPING. NO AUDIO TAPING,” and she attempted to have a Fox 5 cameraman removed.
Reed continues to be employed at DCTC, as general counsel no less, and she has significant sway over the agency’s efforts, particularly with Linton’s frequent absences.
The credibility of Title 31′s “painfully long rulemaking process” is additionally called into question by the commission’s composition, which does not meet the legal requirement. According to the 1985 Taxicab Establishment Act, the nine-member commission must have three industry representatives. Presently it has none.
According to Linton, “The ‘industry member’ has been construed historically to include the hospitality and restaurant industry which is interconnected with the taxicab industry.”
While accurate, this justification may also be wanting. The argument seems to go, “Since we’ve been violating the law for so long, we’ll just continue to do so.”
“[This isn't a] fully functioning Taxicab Commission,” testified Negede Abebe, chairman of The Small Business Association.
Despite this, Linton has attempted to slam through the amendments to Title 31, only somewhat backing off after Mayor Gray publicly told him he must.
In what may be an eleventh hour attempt to bring DCTC into compliance with the law, Gray recently put forward five nominations to the commission, including at least one driver. The nominees – Cyril Crocker, Elliott Ferguson, Bart Lasner (current member), Anthony Muhammad, and Stanley Tapscott – will have a hearing April 5 at 11 a.m. in room 120 of the John A. Wilson Building.
The following week, DCTC meets April 11 at 10 a.m. at One Judiciary Square at 441 4th St, NW. Friday, the commission declined to comment on the meeting’s agenda, saying it will be posted one week beforehand.
“As usual, the DCTC is continuing to keep us in the dark,” said Haimanot Bizuayehu, board member of The Small Business Association. “It would be much easier for us and the Taxicab Commission if they would communicate with us.”