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Last August, Prince George’s County approved a dramatic increase in the number of taxicab medallions it distributes. Local taxicab companies opposed the move, saying it could drive them out of business. As the county gives out the new medallions, we explore what it means for drivers and customers in Prince George’s.
- Aurora Vasquez D.C.-based attorney specializing in taxicab industry reform.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, remembering the Washington life of Sargent Shriver, but first, taking a taxi in Prince George's County, like most places outside the District, requires some planning. You just can't hail one on the street. You've got to call a cab company. Those cab companies are locked in a dispute with the county and taxi drivers about a new law. Last August, after two years of debate, the county council voted to double the number of taxi licenses. Drivers have pushed for the change which allows more independent drivers into the business while cab companies claim it's going to hurt service and create more competition for a shrinking number of customers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe debate highlights a growing movement by taxi drivers to organize across our region. The cabbies, for instance, who work at BWI Marshall Airport were cleared last fall to form a union, and drivers in Alexandria formed a cooperative. Here with us to discuss what this all means for customers, companies and drivers is Aurora Vasquez, a D.C.-based attorney who specializes in taxicab industry reform. Aurora, welcome back.
MS. AURORA VASQUEZIt's always great to be here talking taxi.
NNAMDIWhat was the idea behind increasing the number of medallions or certificates in Prince George's County?
VASQUEZThe purpose of doing that was to create a space so that individual cab drivers could have some economic independence, meaning own and operate their own taxicab, and also to create a space for cabdrivers to form a cooperatively-held cab company to compete with the existing companies.
NNAMDISince you joined us in last August, the new law has gone into effect in Prince George's County. It's still being opposed, however. Tell us what happened.
VASQUEZSo the new law completely transforms the industry. In that -- under the old system, the existing cab companies -- well, I should say three individuals behind most of the existing cab companies controlled upwards of 600 of the then-existing 785 taxicabs. So under the new system, there's a big change, meaning they're not gonna get to control every last cabdriver the way they used to. So quite naturally, they're uncomfortable with the situation, and they would prefer to keep 600 and some cabdrivers under their control because they charge on average each one of those drivers $330 a week to rent one of their cabs, which is $17,160 a year. So you can see why they were very comfortable with that situation and are greatly unhappy with the current situation.
NNAMDIThe cab companies filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the law from going into effect. Tell us what happened.
VASQUEZThey filed a suit and -- originally back in October, requested an injunction to prevent it from going into effect. They lost that injunction. The judge who heard their request acknowledged that there was -- that it may be possible that cab companies would suffer some sort of economic impact if the law went into effect, but she also said that it would be clear that independent cabdrivers would certainly suffer an economic impact or a negative economic impact if the law was prevented from going into effect.
NNAMDIAnd so they file a lawsuit. The judge did not issue an injunction as they...
NNAMDI...hoped she would. When is the lawsuit scheduled to go to trial?
NNAMDIIn March of this year.
NNAMDIHow many drivers applied for the medallion? How many actually got them?
VASQUEZFour hundred and nine drivers applied for 390 available medallions, and 254 were deemed eligible.
NNAMDIWhat does it take to be eligible to apply for a medallion?
VASQUEZThe law sets out some clear standards. First, you have to have had your taxicab driver's license for at least two years. Second, you had to be able to establish that you were actually providing taxicab service in the county -- in Prince George's County during the past two years. And the reason for that was that there are a lot of people in Prince George's County who own taxicab driver's licenses but don't actually provide service in the county. And then, the final thing was that you had to produce your manifest to confirm or verify that you had been working in the county for the past two years, and then fill out a boilerplate application form which you sign and had notarized.
NNAMDIAbout 150 drivers, I am reliably informed, were not considered eligible on what basis?
VASQUEZWe don't know. We haven't seen -- when I say we, I mean the Prince George's County Taxi Workers Alliance who really led this reform effort and who I partner with. We haven't seen the rejection letters, so we have no way of knowing why those individuals were rejected. It could be that they were all rejected for very different reasons.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Aurora Vasquez. She is a Washington-based attorney who specializes in taxicab industry reform. Inviting your calls. Do you live in Prince George's County? Do you think that the new arrangement works better for you? Have you seen results from it? Are there more taxi drivers available or less? 800-433-8850. What do you think of taxi service where you are? Do you think rates are fair where you happen to live? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Business has not been very good for taxi companies. How will adding more cabs on the street help any of the drivers?
VASQUEZWell, conceivably, it's possible that there will be some attrition. Cabdrivers know that. I think cab companies really know that, and that's part of why they filed that lawsuit to try to stop the change. But attrition is natural in a market that is dominated by competition, presuming there's competition. The old system in Prince George's County lacked competition altogether because three people dominated the industry. They controlled over 600 of the available 785 certificates, and they worked in very close business partnerships. So across the board, they all charge the same amount. Across the board, they all provided the same service. So cabdrivers couldn't leave one company and go to another and be treated better. So there is a chance that with real competition now that there is gonna be some drivers, some cab companies that might decide to leave the county altogether and leave the operations up to the existing ones, but we'll see. That's the point of competition.
NNAMDIHow does this affect, if at all, taxi rates?
VASQUEZWell, the taxi rates will stay the same. The -- what we refer to us the drop fee, which is the rate that comes up on your -- comes up on the taxicab meter the moment you step into a cab is set by Law. So that will remain the same. What will change, however, is the public's ability to choose the cab company with which they do business, and that's critical in Prince George's County, and here's why. Right now, because the existing dominate cab companies all work together, they all get their dispatch service from one dispatch service provider. It's called Taxi Taxi, Inc., which means as a rider, if you call company A and don't like the service you get, let's say, they don't send you a cab on time or the dispatcher is rude and you decide you don't want to do business with taxicab company A, and you call company B, the phone will ring at the exact same place and the exact same dispatcher who say to send a...
NNAMDIOkay, okay. If I call company C?
VASQUEZThe phone will ring at Taxi Taxi. In Prince George's County...
VASQUEZ...all phones ring at Taxi Taxi. So now with the introduction of independent cabdrivers who are going to form their own cooperatively-held cab company, the public will be able to dial a different phone number and actually get the company they think they're doing business with.
NNAMDIOkay. Joining us now by telephone is Gatacho Gracha (sp?), who is a taxi driver in the process of becoming an independent taxi operator. Gatacho, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. GATACHO GRACHAThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWhat does this mean for you personally? Have you been able to get your own certificate as yet?
GRACHAThis to mean for me and for my colleague drivers is economic justice because we used to pay, as Ms. Aurora said, a lot of money to the company, and it means also a chance to participate in the decision making. Our drivers were are not in the decision-making process, the taxi board used to decide everything without our participation. Now, the new law lets us to have a seat in the taxi board decision so we can participate in the decision. Third, it means empowering the taxi law in the county. Before the taxi law was not properly enforced in the county. Now, the new law is enforced. The new law will also help us to implement the calls properly, and we add some articles which do not exist that -- like outside the jurisdiction taxi used to come and pick up customers, but now, there is a limit for that.
GRACHAAnd also, it means that the public will get better service because there's no competition. Before now, we open up to competition, and it is also -- for us, it means opening the sector, the taxi industry, to be governed by the marketing forces because there is -- there was no new competition because of that everything was controlled by, as Aurora said, few people. They decide the price. They decide everything. Now, the market force will decide that. So if -- it means also to, for us, to get better working condition. We don't have working condition -- we don't have even job guarantees.
GRACHASo this means a lot for us.
NNAMDIThere are two aspects of that that I looked to look -- like to look at. First, Aurora Vasquez, it is my understanding that you pointed out that Gatacho and others will be forming a cooperative. What happens if anybody who got a certificate refuses to participate in joining the cooperative? How would that independent operator carrying his or her own certificate operate?
VASQUEZMm-hmm. So under the existing taxicab code, so we didn't make any changes to this, all certificate owners, individual certificate owners had the option of operating independently, and that's written into the law, and there's a color scheme for that. Your cab says very clearly on the side independent.
VASQUEZAnd those individuals under the old system could, for example, choose to purchase dispatch service from, say, Taxi Taxi because it's the only company in the county, or they could just choose not to do that at all and simply say stand at the Metro station...
VASQUEZ...and do it that way. So they will still have that option. They certainly don't have to affiliate.
NNAMDIGatacho, I'm assuming that you are one of those drivers who's interested in forming a cooperative. How will you guarantee that the cooperative operates differently than the existing companies? How will you guarantee that people won't be still calling the same dispatch number? How will you guarantee for your drivers that you won't be charging what you consider to be exorbitant rates for them to be able to use their taxicabs in the county?
GRACHAYeah. This is a very good question because we gonna have our own dispatching that will be operated totally depending on the technology. The current dispatching is not fairly and freely operating because the dispatchers, they discriminate customers as well as drivers. So this will help both drivers and the -- public will get better. The coop will have its own operation rules, so we will play by the rules so we can be better to the public and to our service.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on our taxicab update for Prince George's County including -- we also include what's going on in Alexandria and what taxi drivers are doing at Baltimore, Washington Marshall Airport. You can call us, 800-433-8850. Or send us an e-mail to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be reflecting on the life of Sargent Shriver in Washington. Right now, we're talking about taxicabs in the Washington area, concentrating for the time being on Prince George's County with Aurora Vasquez. She's a D.C.-based attorney who specializes on taxicab industry reform. And Gatacho Gracha, he's a taxi driver in the process of becoming an independent taxi operator. Right now, Prince George's Country has a voucher system to provide taxi service to elderly and low-income residents. Aurora Vasquez, can you describe how that works?
VASQUEZThe voucher system is connected to the county. The county issues contracts to taxicab companies, for example, in which those companies provide transportation to certain individuals at a reduced price. Those people pay by voucher. And so, there are county agencies that have had contracts with some of the leading cab companies for many years now to provide that service.
NNAMDIAnd how will that change under the new system? Because it would appear that the lawyers for the cab companies have said that seniors will now be underserved because new cab drivers might not honor county vouchers given to seniors and low-income residents given that it's, I guess, a financial disincentive? How do you feel about that, Gatacho Gracha, the allegation that you're not gonna honor vouchers from seniors and low-income residents because, frankly, you won't be making enough money off of them?
GRACHAWhat the -- generally, the company lawyer saying is not -- it doesn't have any ground because all drivers already serving their company are not leaving. Only certain drivers are leaving. Most of the drivers now getting their medallion are the one that company most of the time refuse to give them better job especially the voucher. So there are already experienced drivers there who served like one year and one year and a half. There is no -- I don't think that the voucher service will disconnect. And also for people leaving, there is another -- more drivers trained and there to serve their company. They don't have a shortage of drivers and they don't -- actually, they -- few drivers are the ones who used to been -- get the voucher. So the allegation has no ground for our getting PG.
NNAMDIWe've answered this question before, but I wanna make sure we've answered it correctly for Musquine. (sp?) We got an e-mail from Musquine asking, "Are all the cabs in PG County still only accessible through a single call-in system with several different phone numbers? On several occasions, I've called for a cab, and cabs have simply not shown up. But because there is nobody else to call, we just have to call back, be told nobody wanted to come pick us up, try again and wait and hope. Is anything being changed so that there are options, allowing D.C. or Montgomery cabs to make pickups in Prince George's County for instance?" asks Musquine.
VASQUEZPrince George's County does not have a reciprocity agreement with any other jurisdiction. As a result, out-of-jurisdiction cabs may not pick up in Prince George's County. However, the question or the point of are things gonna change with respect to getting service when you actually pick up the phone and call for a cab company, the answer to that is yes. The creation of a cab company that is outside of the triangle of the existing cab companies means that there's gonna be a separate phone number where people can call and they will actually get that particular company. Whereas under the other system, which will continue parallel to the new system, no matter what cab company you think you called, the phone will ring at Taxi Taxi, and you're stuck with whatever service Taxi Taxi gives you or does not give you. It's not necessarily a question of whether the cab drivers want to pick you up, but rather a question of how well those cabs are being dispatched by the people who are responsible for timely moving the cabs throughout the county.
NNAMDIHere is Johnson in Prince George's County. Johnson, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNSONYes. My name is Johnson (word?). I've been driving through this whole -- through George's County. I've been driving for 18 years now. First of all, I wanna thank the (word?) for the wonderful things that he have done for us and I thank Aurora for wonderful things that he have done. Eventually, when we started in -- the Taxi Taxi, the (unintelligible) the money talks. But right now, it's justice talk. Justice is what we need in this PG county, and justice, I think, prevail. Yeah, this prevail. It's ridiculous that the Taxi Taxi have been using us for long, long time. They cannot compromise. They cannot do anything for us. And the (unintelligible) and I really thank the (word?) for the wonderful thing that they have done, especially, Aurora, and I thank you. One of the (unintelligible) PG County you have done wonderful justice for everybody and we thank you, too, for bringing this show to D.C. for everybody to hear what you have done for us. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for your call, Johnson. We got this e-mail from Dee in Falls Church, Va. "It sounds as if the new taxi system makes it tough for newcomers. How does someone who wants to start has no experience being a taxi driver get a medallion or license? It sounds as if Prince George's County medallions are only awarded to people to who have two years' experience in the county. How do they get experience in order to qualify? Work as an employee for someone who already has a medallion?" Aurora Vasquez.
VASQUEZSo there's a couple of ways to do that. The first thing you would have to do is to get a taxicab driver's license in Prince George's County and those are issued by the Department of Environmental Resources. And then once you do that, you can choose to affiliate with a existing company or you could choose to rent directly from an individual, say, who wants to start what would be a cab company of one, basically. And then once you have gained the experience you need within the county, then you will be eligible to either participate in a lottery that is sponsored by the county to give out certificates to individuals or you could contract with somebody who already owns a medallion and purchase it from them.
NNAMDIThank you very much for that e-mail. The new medallions are specifically for those without a certificate. Is it the case that cab companies cannot apply representatives of cab companies, say, this violates equaled -- Maryland's equal protection clause?
VASQUEZRight. It is true that the new certificates are limited for ownership purposes to individual cab drivers. However, there are 785 certificates that are already in circulation and those can be purchased, sold, you know, between cab companies as they please. So common sense would tell you that if you're an existing cab company and you wanna grow your fleet, you don't need to go after any one of the 390 new certificates. What you need to do is provide really, really good service and put your competition out of business and absorb their medallions. The companies -- the existing companies don't wanna do that because at the end of the day, they are all friends with one another and they are not competing with one another. However, if they were then, you know, company A, if it wants to grow it would just put its neighbor company B out of business and take its certificate. And that's the nature of competition in a free market industry.
NNAMDIWhen taxi drivers organized in Alexandria over the last two years, they formed a cooperative. Taxi drivers in Prince George's County and you have already indicated that the newly independent drivers plan to do the same. So let's move from Prince George's County for a second because there's also been a ruling on the taxi company at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport allowing drivers to form a union. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
VASQUEZSo their situation is a little different. In terms of cab industry history, I think it's important for folks to know that back in the '70s, the relationship between a cab company and cab drivers tended to be an employer-employee relationship. And then a trend started and eventually changed the entire industry across the nation. And now cab drivers are independent contractors. And the reason for that is that as independent contractors, the cab companies don't need to provide them health insurance, paid time off, worker's compensation, any of that. So the cab drivers at BWI were in a little bit of a different situation because the company that owns the contract, that BWI and, therefore, controls all the cabs, really controlled their ability to work. So there was actually very little independence for those drivers. And as a result, when they went before the National Labor Relations Board, the judge ruled that they, in fact, were not necessarily independent and were more in this employee category and, therefore, could unionize because as independent contractors, you're not -- you don't have a protected right to move collectively.
NNAMDISo the driver's of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will be allowed to organize and presumably they're doing so. It seems to be part of a broader effort by drivers to organize. I'd like to get to what's happening in the District of Columbia. Allow me to start that by going to Larry Frankel, who's on the phone in Washington D.C. Larry Frankel, can you tell us exactly who you are and why you're on the phone?
MR. LARRY FRANKELYes. My name is Larry Frankel. I'm chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers and I'm on the board of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers which is our new overall association cooperative.
NNAMDIAnd what is your interest in this conversation?
FRANKELMy interest in this conversation?
FRANKELWell, I guess I was asked by your program to be here. Therefore, it gives us a little -- it gives me at least a front here to tell the cab drivers in the District of Columbia that we now have an association of a coalition of all the advocate associations and most of the driver-owned companies. So...
NNAMDIAurora Vasquez, this is just one of a number of driver-led initiatives taking place in the District of Columbia. Can you tell us about those?
VASQUEZWell, it seems to me that over the years and based on what I've learned from just following what's happening in D.C. is that there have been a number of instances where drivers have come together to attempt to change their overall working conditions. And what goes in to that is very complex, as we've all heard over the years. There are a number of pressing issues for D.C. taxicab drivers. And I think in what's -- a good change, a forward-looking change, it seems that these various groups, some of which have -- I've been in this studio with before, have all come together to try to collectively achieve some change in the District and some outcome.
VASQUEZI think the big question -- well, there's many big questions for D.C. drivers. I think one of the big questions for them to face upfront is how they are going to be committed to what can be a very long struggle. Because in taxicab industries, I've learned in the two initiatives that I've successfully partnered with and produced comprehensive reform, that it can be a very long struggle. And most cab drivers are facing a sense of urgency right now. And so, they rightly so want change right now. However, change rarely ever comes right now, at least not long-term institutionalized change.
NNAMDIThere are several kinds of change that taxi drivers are interested in, Larry Frankel, one of them is that it's my understanding that in addition to at first opposing the introduction of meters in District of Columbia cabs -- now that that's the law and it's been accepted -- taxi drivers are still concerned about what they think are low rates, correct, Larry Frankel?
FRANKELOh, that is correct. We still have the lowest rates in the entire country. And, of course, this is what something that the previous administration of Mayor Fenty had done. He set the -- knowingly set the rates 30 percent lower than the zone system which that meter replaced. But we're very optimistic. We have spoken several times with Mayor Gray's assistants. And we're very optimistic that we change it very soon.
NNAMDIHere's the other aspect of D.C. taxicabs that you may or, well, may not what to hear about. This is an e-mail we got from Jack. "As random as taxicabs in D.C. are, please urge D.C. to move to a more standard system like London system, which requires them to take a driving test that includes getting from point A to point B by either the shortest or most timely manner. And all cabs are standard, beautiful, easy, in and out and respected. Those drivers are so proud of their jobs and thrilled to take on passengers unlike D.C.," says Jack. What do you say, Larry Frankel?
FRANKELWell, I, too, would like a system that compares to London. It's the happiest cab drivers in the entire world. Their system is very beneficial to their drivers. What we have, and directly going towards this question, is that we have many problems in the District. One of them is that we have a lot of illegal drivers that either have duplicate licenses and shouldn't be on the road. We feel that there is substantial number of these. And the previous administration, once again, did not address these concerns. And we're again very optimistic that the new administration will. This is very troubling to all of us professional cab drivers. I assure you that we're looking to correct this as soon as possible.
NNAMDILarry Frankel, we are out of time. Thank you so much for joining us. Gatacho Gracha, thank you also for joining us. Gatacho Gracha is a taxi driver in the process of becoming an independent taxi operator in Prince George's County. Aurora Vasquez, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAurora is a Washington-based attorney who specializes in taxicab industry reform. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll remember the Washington life of R. Sargent Shriver. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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