Taxi Reform Back On City Agenda

Taxi Reform Back On City Agenda

More control for drivers seen as part of issue.

The City Council will once again consider reforming the city’s taxicab industry.

In 2003, after more than a year of discussion and several public hearings, the City Council decided to make no substantive changes to the city’s taxicab system. However, last year, a new council with four new members decided to look at the issue again. Council members Rob Krupicka and Ludwig Gaines began work to devise a system that is acceptable to drivers, companies and taxicab users alike.

“We have had several meetings with all of the parties that are involved and plan to present a new proposal to City Council later this month,” Krupicka said. “We fully understand that no one proposal is going to give everyone involved everything they want. However, we hope that everyone will come away with having gotten something. This entire process is about compromise and a willingness to work together.”

Working together has become more complicated because of a split among the drivers. The Alexandria United Taxi drivers Organization was previously a group under the auspices of the Alexandria Tenant and Workers Support Committee. This summer, Kathleen Henry, who worked for TWSC as an organizer and who was the contact person with AUTO, left TWSC and formed her own organization. That organization is AUTO Inc. and she is the president. Jon Liss, the executive director of TWSC, is working with a group of drivers known as AUTO/TWSC.

“We have about 200 drivers who are with us,” Henry said. “We believe that the time for talking is over and that it may now be time to file lawsuits. Several of these drivers have been talking to City Council for many years and council just doesn’t seem willing to listen, at least not to us.

“When I met with Councilmen Krupicka and Gaines, they told the drivers that they had to get rid of me. That’s also part of the split with TWSC. When TWSC got the $300,000 from the city, I believe that Jon was told he needed to curtail his political activities. That group of drivers who are with TWSC are, shall we say, maybe more civil. We just want to take some action,” Henry said.

Gaines denied making any such demand. “That is just complete nonsense,” he said. “Kathleen simply wants to go in a direction that we are not willing to go and the fact that she could make such accusations speaks volumes.”

LISS ACKNOWLEDGED THAT there was a split and that it is not amicable. “We are proceeding to work with Councilmen Gaines and Krupicka toward the goal of reforming the city’s taxi system,” Liss said. “We are proceeding based on a proposal that was approved based on a democratic vote.

“We know that we aren’t going to get everything we want but we are optimistic, based on our meetings, that we can begin to take real steps toward reform,” he said.

Liss said that TWSC is working with a group of multinational drivers who comprise 70 to 80 percent of all taxicab drivers in the city. He responded to Henry’s accusations about being urged to decrease the organization’s “political” activity.

“Our disagreement with Kathleen had nothing to do with our getting a loan from the city for our new building,” Liss said. “Her accusations are outrageous and are coming from a disgruntled ex-employee.” The $300,000 was given to TWSC in the form of a 99-year loan to purchase a new facility on Mt. Vernon Avenue. City Council approved the loan during budget deliberations last May.

The two major points of discussion are a driver’s ability to move from one company to another and who controls the certificates.

“The proposal that we are now considering would give drivers some ability to move from one company to another and would thus give them some control of their certificates,” Krupicka said.

The proposal would allow senior drivers to apply for “advanced driver” status. “About 35 to 40 percent of drivers would be eligible to apply for this status,” Krupicka said. “It would require them to take some advanced training and would recognize their years of driving here in the city by giving them certain benefits. One of those benefits would be the ability to choose the company they are going to be affiliated with. There would, of course, be restrictions on how often drivers could switch companies and, when the driver decides to stop driving, the certificate would revert to the city but, we believe it’s a good step.”

Liss isn’t happy with that number but agrees it is a step. “If we can all agree that this is a first step toward more driver control, it would be open for discussion,” he said.

THE CURRENT SYSTEM gives control of the certificates to companies. However, there has been a “gray” market in which drivers have purchased vehicles from other operators and paid more than the taxi is worth with the understanding that the new owner would have a job with the previous operator’s company. According to Krupicka, companies have tacitly allowed this to happen.

“To recognize those investments, we would allow drivers to keep their current vehicles longer than we are going to permit new drivers to keep theirs,” Krupicka said. Alexandria is one of the few jurisdictions in the country which does not have an age limit on its cabs.

“Some of the cabs that are operating in Alexandria are old New York police cars that were New York taxis and then sold to Alexandria operators when they were no longer permitted in New York,” Krupicka said. The new age limit would be seven years.

“We are going to require that every company provide dispatch services,” Krupicka said. “The point of the taxi system in Alexandria is to send taxis to people who want them. The only real way to do this is to have a dispatch system.”

Liss agrees with this position. “We can support a requirement for dispatch with all companies,” he said.

Henry does not. She and Mohammad Kahn, one of the drivers with whom she is working, sent a proposal to council earlier this fall. “We suggested that the council establish an incentive for dispatch by allowing companies to charge only for calls,” Henry said. “Each driver would pay the company per call; if he got no calls, he would not pay. We suggested that the fee ($1 or so) be passed on to the dispatch customer, as is done at the airport, in D.C. and, I believe in PG County.

“We also suggested a small administrative fee be paid by each driver to the company each month for the handling of files and complaints. The vast majority of the drivers enthusiastically support this idea, and it would result in companies whose primary focus was good dispatch and customer service, since if they do not have calls they do not make money. It would also make the issue of certificates secondary, and would create competition between companies for cab customers, leading to better service for customers,” Henry said.

AS TO THE COMPANIES, the drivers have expressed concern that Alexandria Yellow Cab, which also owns Diamond Cab, has a monopoly on taxi business in the city. “We are going to place some restrictions on how companies can grow,” Krupicka said. “First of all, we are only going to increase the number of taxis allowed in the city if dispatch business increases and justifies raising the cap.” Right now, the cap is 650 cabs.

“In addition, we are not going to allow a company such as Yellow Cab to grow by buying a smaller company. Two small companies could combine to grow their business but the larger ones can’t,” Krupicka said.

Liss has concerns about this. “So far, the city doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about Yellow Cab’s monopoly,” he said. “We do plan to form a driver-owned cooperative but think it would be very hard to compete with Yellow Cab,” he said.

Henry, too, plans to form a driver-owned cooperative. “We have already taken steps to do just that,” she said.

Both Liss and Krupicka agree that change is important but customers must be protected. “We really want the drivers to have more control over their work situations but we have no interest in creating chaos,” Liss said.

Krupicka agreed. “We are looking at ways to allow for more driver control without losing the accountability that is provided by the companies,” he said. “Right now, the companies take on the management responsibilities and make city enforcement easier to accomplish. If we had independent taxi operators, we would have to significantly increase the city’s enforcement efforts,” he said.

Krupicka and Gaines will present a package to the council later this month. The proposal should be available on the city's Web site. Liss’ proposal can be obtained by calling the TWSC office at 703-684-5697. Henry’s group does not plan to submit another proposal until after the vote.