Taxicab drivers find themselves with new regulations for their industry following City Council's decision Tuesday night.
Last year Council decided to make no changes in the way city cab companies run their business, which left certificate cards in the hands of cab companies. However, drivers lobbied hard to get the matter reconsidered. The city hired a consultant to study the matter and make recommendations. Results of that study and four separate plans were presented to Council Tuesday.
There are currently 609 taxicabs operating in Alexandria. Of those, approximately 275 work almost exclusively from Washington Reagan National Airport. The remaining 334 cabs serve primarily dispatch trips where customers call a cab company and request that a cab be dispatched to their location.
Alexandria residents rate taxi service overall as 'good', according to an on-line survey that the city’s taxicab consultant, Schaller Consulting, conducted. There were 330 responses to the survey. Customers most often rated quality of vehicles, reliability and timeliness of dispatch service and value for the money less favorably than some other aspects of cab service.
“We were generally pleased with the number of responses and believe that the people who responded were representative of the population of Alexandria,” said Bruce Schaller at Tuesday’s Council meeting.
Schaller compared four new taxicab options. The option that is supported by a working group of citizens who were asked to look at issues take up to 129 certificates from companies and put them in the hands of drivers. This represents about 20 percent of the total number of certificates available. There would be a 24-hour-per-day, seven-day-a-week requirement for dispatch. Drivers who hold certificates would be permitted to move to any company they choose. Under this option, certificates would not be transferable and drivers who hold a cer5ificate card would be required to affiliate with a company.
The Alexandria United Taxi Drivers Organization also proposed an option. The only real similarity is the requirement for 24-7 dispatch service. All certificate cards would be issued to vehicle owner operators. Drivers who hold a certificate would be permitted to move to any company. Certificates would be transferable for monetary consideration and drivers would be required to affiliate with a company.
THERE IS ALSO an AUTO/Yellow Cab joint option. There is no requirement for dispatch service. All certificate cards would be issued to current drivers covered by existing certificate cards. Drivers would be permitted to move to any company and certificates would be transferable for monetary consideration. No company affiliation is required.
Yellow Cab proposed a two-tier option. Dispatch service is not required. For companies who elect to have dispatch service, certificate cards are issued to the company and for non-dispatch companies the certificates are issued to the drivers. Drivers with certificates can move to any company. Certificates would be transferable for monetary consideration subject to regulation.
“I want to make certain that we aren’t creating a whole new department to regulate this industry,” said Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper. “I remember in the 1980s regulation fell to Council. We spent a good deal of time settling disputes and that is why we went to the current system. We want to make sure that we aren’t creating a whole new set of problems,” she said.
Schaller said, “The work group’s proposal would create the least regulatory impact to the city and the AUTO and joint AUTO/Yellow Cab proposal would create the most regulatory impact,” he said.
MANY CITIZENS ARE concerned about the impact to the subsidized taxi programs for senior citizens and persons with disabilities. “Right now, the system is working,” said Catherine Cunningham who uses a wheelchair. “Drivers are generally courteous and arrive on time. We must make sure that any change to the system does not result in unreliable service to those of us who need it the most.”
Councilwoman Joyce Woodson, who has worked on this issue before and who has been supportive of the drivers, agreed. “I don’t think there is anyone in this room who will support any option that does not meet the needs of our senior citizens and those with disabilities,” she said.
Another issue is accountability. If certificates are transferable and held by drivers who can rent their vehicles to others, who is to be ultimately responsible?
“Experience has shown that companies need to control most of the certificate cards in order to ensure driver accountability and service quality,” Schaller said. “While dispatch companies should hold most, 80 percent or more, of the certificate cards needed for dispatch operations, it is important to driver movement and the competitiveness of the driver labor market for drivers to hold some certificate cards.”
Mayor William D. Euille asked about enforcement. “I see that enforcement is not discussed here,” he said. “I want to see us do more toward enforcing our own regulations. If we aren’t going to enforce the rules, why make them,” he said.
The main issue is control. Drivers want to control the certificates and companies are reluctant to relinquish that control.
“The time for talking is over,” said Cathleen Henry, a staff member from the Tenant and Workers Support Committee who works with AUTO. “It is time for City Council to vote and show that they have heard what we are saying.”
In the end, Council voted to refer the matter to a working group of two Council members, Councilman Rob Krupicka and Councilman Ludwig Gaines. They will take comments from their five colleagues and then work with representatives from the taxicab industry, AUTO and city staff to draft a consensus plan. “That plan can be brought back to us at the June 9 meeting for a vote,” Woodson said.
Councilman Paul Smedberg asked for a clarification on the timing. “I know there was some discussion about completing this work before we recess next month,” he said. “I don’t believe that will be possible given what we have just decided.”
City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa said, “We can complete the framework by the end of this year’s session and then bring the new code back to Council in September,” he said.
The new code must come back to Council and be set for public hearing before it can be adopted.