By Derrick Perkins
In spite of wildly different views on what reforms sought after by cab drivers will mean for Alexandria, city officials are moving ahead with plans to study the industry.
The long simmering feud between cabbies, taxi companies and City Hall flared up earlier this year after drivers petitioned officials for more freedom to move between companies. The request also came as City Hall began considering a requirement that drivers accept major credit cards as payment.
While drivers pushed for an immediate rollback of restrictions on their career mobility — cabbies can only switch companies, which must be compliant with local regulations, once every two years— transportation officials suggested a more cautious approach regarding a major policy overhaul.
City councilors sided with the latter last week, creating a nine-member task force charged with examining the industry and driver demands, though without much confidence the group will find consensus.
“It seems to me we have a threshold legal question that we have a disagreement on — on both sides — and no amount of meeting on a task force is going to resolve that. There’s really very few ways of resolving that short of going before a judge,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson, who voted against the task force. “We’re kind of setting ourselves up for failure.”
That question stems from a change to state law last summer. Officials worry the tweak, which allows companies to replace lost cabbies with new replacements, would see Alexandria inundated with taxis if they allowed drivers to move freely between companies.
But drivers and their supporters, most notably Tenants and Workers United, argue City Hall still has the power to cap the size of the overall fleet, thus keeping the amount of cabs in check — even with free career mobility.
It’s a disagreement that the city’s top legal advisor believes will only be settled with the help of a judge.
“There just simply is a fundamental disagreement,” City Attorney Jim Banks told city council last week. “There is no other way to figure out the legal question other than in court.”
Even so, the principal actors are heading into the effort convinced they can bring the others around to their way of thinking.
“I think what the work group will do, it will show [Tenants and Workers United] that if they want to liberalize transfers, there will be backfill and increase the amount of cabs,” said Kyle Summers, general manager of Alexandria Yellow Cab.
Rich Baier, director of city transportation and environmental services, feels likewise. While he remains optimistic that the task force can reach an understanding for future reforms to the city’s taxi regulations, just getting all sides up to speed on state code represents a victory.
“There may not be compromise available or there may not be a solution … different than what the city attorney opined on, but there may be nuances,” Baier said. “[Through] discussions, people often change their positions.”
Cab drivers also haven’t ruled out swaying minds — just in the other direction. Driver Daniel Berhane, who has led the reform movement, believes a careful reading of the state law will convince city officials and company representatives that drivers have it correct.
“The task force can be good; we can explain to them what’s in the law,” Berhane said. “We believe [this disagreement] can be solved, if we can sit and talk about it.”
The task force, which will deliver its recommendations to city council in October, will include representatives from the cab drivers, taxi companies, city staff, and various boards and commissions — as well as a city councilor.
The task force also is charged with studying grandfathered certificates and examining companies not in compliance with the city’s dispatch regulations. Mayor Bill Euille will appoint the members.