Taxi Drivers Call for Protests Ahead of Council Vote

The Verifone equipment city officials plan to install in every D.C. taxi. Picture courtesy of dcist.com

Listen to The Taxi Link on WUST 1120 AM

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(A shorter version of this piece ran in Union City, the AFL-CIO’s regional newsletter; and it was also cited by Slate.)

Tuesday, the D.C. Council is scheduled to vote for a second and likely final time on legislation that will overhaul D.C.’s taxicab industry, potentially to the detriment of drivers, who continue to be an afterthought in an industry that can’t exist without them. Ahead of the vote, drivers are scheduled to hold protests Monday and Tuesday from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at Freedom Plaza, directly across from the D.C. Council.

“This bill in its current form is going to make us 21st century sharecroppers,” said Haimanot Bizuayehu, a board member of The Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers, an organization which represents three thousand drivers. “If this bill passes as it is, it is going to put local taxicab companies out of business,” Bizuayehu told TheFightBack‘s Pete Tucker and ANC Commissioner Tony Norman, co-hosts of The Small Business Association’s radio program, The Taxi Link, which airs Saturdays on WUST 1120 AM.

Drivers are concerned with a number of provisions in the “Taxicab Service Improvement Act of 2012,” including the increased power it gives to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, a troubled agency known for its hostility towards drivers. Ironically, even the lead sponsor of the bill, Councilmember Mary Cheh, has called for the abolition of the Taxicab Commission, yet now she’s leading the charge to greatly expand its power.

Cheh’s bill mandates that all drivers install a new meter with a credit card reader and GPS tracking, potentially allowing for the tracking of both drivers and passengers. At a July 7 press conference, prior to Council approval of the new meter system, Mayor Vincent Gray announced that the city was moving forward with a 5-year, $35 million deal with Verifone, which is slated to be the sole provider of the so-called smart meters.

“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 Washington Post in a February editorial. The Post took issue with the city’s rushed approach not only to new meters, but also to implementing restrictive age limits on taxis, which the Taxicab Commission has recently done. “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,” wrote the Post.

The new meters, which will have screens and be located in the backseat of taxis, will feature content exclusively from NBC, as well as advertisements. The New York Times noted that the backseat screens have proven to be very unpopular with New Yorkers who find ”those bleating miniature television screens” to be “a standard annoyance.”

But Jason Gross, a spokesman for Verifone, told TheFightBack at Thursday’s press conference that his company has done studies which, maybe not surprisingly, show that passengers “actually like it quite a bit.” Asked whether we should trust Verifone’s data over The Times’ reporting, Gross said, “Yes, actually you should.”

Gross’ response elicited a chuckle from Mayor Gray, who then offered a more tepid endorsement of the large-scale project, saying, “I think if it doesn’t work out well we won’t continue to use it.” Gray’s response, however, may not square with the contract he’s calling on the Council to approve as early as next week, which is unlikely to allow the District to put a stop to Verifone’s ”bleating miniature television screens.”

While drivers will have to endure the ads all day, every day in their privately owned taxis, they won’t derive any benefit. Instead, the advertising revenue will be captured by the Taxicab Commission and Verifone (which has reached agreements to share ad revenue with taxi owners in other cities).

Time and again, city officials promised that the new meters would come at no cost to drivers, but instead would be funded by a surcharge of up to $0.50 per ride. But at Thursday’s press conference, taxi chair Ron Linton said drivers may have to pay $300 each and possibly as much as $500 for the installation.

Shortly before the first vote on the taxi overhaul bill, Cheh said to her colleagues on the dais, “All of the costs related to the new equipment… will be paid for through the surcharge fee.” Except they won’t.

“This is a substantial change from the time that they had a public hearing. The drivers and the public have not had an opportunity to even discuss how this is going to impact [them],” Commissioner Norman said of the recently announced installation fee. “This bill needs to be stopped, period. It has to go back to committee. There’s too many problems, too many questions.”

The Small Business Association has raised other questions about Cheh’s bill, including the provision which requires taxicab companies with more than 20 taxis to make 10 percent of their fleet wheelchair accessible. With the average cost of a wheelchair accessible vehicle running around $40,000, this could cause some of D.C.’s smaller taxi companies to go under.

Drivers are also concerned about Cheh’s attempt to create a new class of public vehicles-for-hire, allowing largely unregulated sedans, like Uber, to compete with taxis.

To add insult to injury, Cheh, who’s a constitutional scholar, is seeking to codify the Taxicab Commission’s heretofore illegal composition. The 1985 Taxicab Commission Establishment Act calls for three industry members to serve on the nine-member commission, with “industry member” being defined as someone who “shall have experience in taxicab operations in the District.” Cheh’s bill seeks to expand that definition to include those “experienced in the transportation or hospitality industry,” thus allowing the powerful hospitality industry to continue exerting enormous influence over the city’s taxi policy.

“Every driver should be there at 9 o’clock [Monday and Tuesday],” Bizuayehu said in a message to his fellow drivers. “Please, listen to me my friends, take two or three hours of your time and be there so that we can have our business for years to come.”

Related stories:
D.C.’s Illegitimate Taxi Overhaul, May 31, 2012

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