Long road to reform worries Alexandria’s cab drivers

City officials are preparing to take another look at the taxi industry, but drivers say their most important issue — moving freely between companies — is a quick and easy fix.

About 100 drivers gathered on Market Square on Monday, demanding the city roll back restrictions on their mobility. The measure dates back to 2008, when City Hall overhauled industry regulations.

Since then, drivers have had to wait 24 months before switching from one company to another. And they can only jump to an organization that meets the city-mandated number of dispatch calls in Alexandria.

“Large numbers of drivers [before 2008] transferred from dispatch companies to companies primarily serving the airport, and the dispatch companies were unable to keep up,” said Rich Baier, the director of the transportation and environmental services department.

But drivers, all independent contractors, complain the regulation has made moving between companies all but impossible. Without the ability to transfer, they are essentially transformed into employees — and have seen stand dues, the fee imposed by cab companies in return for dispatching calls, steadily rise.

“A company can tell me tomorrow, ‘Your stand due is going to go up,’” said Daniel Berhane, who helped organize Monday’s demonstration. “But if I have a choice [to move], there would be competition.”

Drivers, working with Arlandria-based Tenants and Workers United, presented a proposal to reform the regulations last month, which prompted Baier to seek city council’s blessings to form a task force. He expects to make the request on May 14.

“With regard to the task force at large, we’re trying to makes sure that everyone is at the table,” Baier said. “When we’ve had consideration of major regulatory changes, it’s appropriate to form a task force. This is something that affects the drivers, first and foremost, the companies and users of the service.”

Baier has handled the city’s negotiations with drivers and cab companies in the past. City Hall treats taxicabs as a public service, which gives far-reaching influence on the industry.

“Because [the industry] is a part of our transportation system, the city does play a role,” he said. “They’re using the right-of-way to make a living; they’re part of our transportation system.”

Aurora Vasquez, co-executive director of Tenants and Workers United, believes forming the task force is unnecessary and could delay any real regulatory changes.The amendments that the drivers are seeking are not new. They just want to return to the way movement between companies was previously regulated, she said.

“[Our] position is there is no need to do a task force; we’ve been down this road before,” Vasquez said. “[Baier] was part of what were very contentious and detailed conversations around how the city was going to coordinate drivers moving from one company to another to prevent mass disruption. … One of the ways was to incorporate an annual movement period. He knows the city is capable of handling and processing an annual movement period.”

Taxi drivers are echoing her calls.

“If you know your driver can’t go anywhere, you can treat him how you want,” Behrane said of the taxi companies. “Put it back the way it used to be.”

The oft-tenuous relationship between public officials, drivers and the taxi companies has flared up just as city council prepares to mandate that all cabs accept credit cards. Drivers, who say they’re in favor of credit cards as long as they can pick the transaction-processing vendor, described it as a secondary issue.

But it has become another example, at least to drivers, of their lack of autonomy under regulations.

“[Independent contractors] get to bring their tools of the trade,” Vasquez said. “If the city and companies bear that in mind, it becomes clear that neither the city nor the company can impede that much in terms of picking the tools of the trade.”

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