By Derrick Perkins
A recent change to a state law governing taxi regulations could leave Alexandria awash in cabs if City Hall lets drivers move freely between companies, officials say.
Cab drivers rallied in Market Square last week, demanding more autonomy and the lifting of regulations they argue allow companies to hold them hostage. Under existing regulations, drivers can only switch companies once every two years.
Other regulations, which limit drivers from moving to a company that has not met the city-mandated number of dispatch calls, make moving between jobs nearly impossible, drivers argued.
But those same restrictions have kept Alexandria’s taxicab fleet from exploding. A change in state law, which went into effect in July, essentially removes City Hall’s ability to manage the industry’s size, said Assistant City Attorney Chris Spera.
Under the old regulations, companies could not replace a transferring driver unless a cabbie from a different firm wanted the spot. Spera’s office believes the amended state law gives companies the option to make up the losses by hiring new drivers.
“We did not lobby for this change to the state code and we had no role in its drafting — this was not of our doing. But it is the law and we’re governed by it,” Spera said. “And as a result, if 100 drivers wanted to leave Yellow Cab and go to work for somebody else, we would have no basis for not allowing Yellow Cab to replace those people on a one-to-one basis.”
Though city officials can block a company from bringing on new drivers, they need cause to do so, he said. Unless a company has been brought up on a string of violations, they would have the freedom to replace drivers as they see fit.
Taken all together, that spells an economic nightmare for cab companies and drivers alike, said Rich Baier, transportation and environmental services director.
“If you allow this free transfer … then the city is obligated to backfill those drivers,” he said. “The more taxicabs you have, the smaller the piece of the pie everyone receives. That’s always been the issue: the profitability, the fair profit margin that the cab driver receives for his daily work.”
Spencer Kimball, owner of Yellow Cab, has reached the same conclusion as city staff. Per capita, Alexandria already has three times as many cabs as New York City, he said.
“I don’t think the drivers would [want free mobility] if they knew there would be more cabs,” Kimball said. “Everybody’s business gets hurt by going down that path.”
But Aurora Vasquez, co-executive director of Tenants and Workers United, which has backed the cab drivers’ position, interprets the law in a different way. Even with the amendment, the law still gives City Hall regulatory authority over the size of the taxicab fleet, she said.
The solution, according to Vasquez, is a simple one. City Hall should set the total number of cabs allowed to operate in the city rather than per company. Then drivers could move freely between companies without risking a massive influx of new cabbies, she said.
“The city ought to say the city has [a set amount of cabs] and then let market forces determine how those cabs align with the companies,” Vasquez said.
The issue likely will come up for discussion if city officials get the green light to form an industry task force. City council is expected to weigh creating the board, which has come at the behest of Baier after cab drivers presented his office with their proposed reforms, later in the month.