Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
The path for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s outer borough taxi plan was much like a cab ride: bumpy and expensive.
It’s been a mix of big political personalities and deep pockets that will lead to the virtual dismantling of the way the for-hire transportation industry will operate in the future.
Now that the Bloomberg sponsored legislation has Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, and both sides have called the agreement a win, much of the rest of the industry is trying to asses what the changes will actually mean.
Street Hails for Livery Cabs Causes a Stir
The announcement by Bloomberg that New Yorkers should be able to hail a cab, whether it was black or yellow, raised the ire of much of the taxi industry, especially since the Bloomberg administration never consulted with them or gave them a head’s up that he intended to change the way the taxi business operates.
Bloomberg’s people said they worked hard to reach out to all sides as the legislation was being drafted and agreed upon.
The mayor only needed Albany’s approval to sell more yellow medallions. But he hoped to by-pass the yellow medallion industry’s pull with the City Council and they passionately opposed sharing their exclusive right to accept street hails with their livery counterparts.
In the six months between the announcement of the plan in January and the passage of the legislation in June, there were feverish negotiations and loud rallies organized by various factions of the yellow and black car stakeholders. Lobbyists were hired to fight the proposal upstate. In those first months alone, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, the group representing 23 yellow taxi fleet garages, enlisted three different firms, paying out more than $100,000.
Bloomberg said in a written statement at the time that “The legislation marks an historic turning point for the riding public in New York City and solves a problem that has proven intractable for decades.”
What it marked was another serving of intractable for the mayor.
The Bill's Loud, Vocal Opposition
Bloomberg’s Senate sponsor, Martin Golden, said he signed onto the plan too soon without understanding the “repercussions.” Critics said Golden agreed to sponsor the bill, in part, because Bloomberg is generous to Republicans, in the city and upstate. But the state senator didn’t realize how many in the industry opposed the plan. His phone — as other lawmaker’s — rang off the hook. Angry livery base owners and others in their constituency complained that the plan would hurt their business.
As insiders continued to fight the plan or support it, the legislation seemed to be getting the cold shoulder from Governor Cuomo.
Then, in October, Cuomo showed his political hand by commenting on an opinion letter the U.S. Attorney filed on a lawsuit alleging the city violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by not having enough accessible cabs in its fleet (about two percent of more 13,000 taxis).
Cuomo said, “I understand and appreciate the concerns raised by the U.S. Attorneys office. Moreover, I understand the human needs of the disabled community when it comes to taxis. We will be addressing the issue as we consider modifications to the pending legislation.”
The governor continued to hammer Bloomberg and Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky about wheelchair accessibility. In his public comments, Cuomo didn’t shy away from threatening veto if it wasn’t changed.
Cuomo held 2 “taxi summits” calling industry stakeholders to his office. One was held in New York City and the other was held in Albany last month — chaired by the man himself.
At one point, a deal was said to be struck, and details were leaked. The number of outer borough permits would be cut and the number of accessible medallions would increase. But Cuomo denied any ‘plan.’ Insiders said the governor resented officials in the Bloomberg administration discussing the deal and shut it down as punishment.
Countdown Begins: To Veto or Not Veto
The bill landed on Cuomo’s desk without changes and the ten day clock began to tick.
Bhairavi Desai, head of the drivers group the Taxi Workers Alliance said, “Cuomo’s meeting was very surreal. We’ve always known our opposition was wealthy and politically connected. Everyone around that table had like millions of dollars or more in assets.”
There were yellow fleet owners, lenders, financial institutions and credit unions, along with their lobbyists. Livery groups and representatives from the disability community were also in attendance.
Desai said the city offered her group some sweeteners, but it was also about opposing the fat cats. “They say it’s about the medallion value—but it’s about the monopoly—their sense of control.”
The last couple days before the deadline, political insiders and industry stakeholders forecasted a veto by Cuomo. When Bloomberg was asked by reporters each day if a deal would be passed he dismissed questions with a yes. But each successive day his mantra seemed less likely.
On the ninth day, the governor’s office sent out a release at 5:20 PM saying a taxi deal was struck.
At the press conference Cuomo and accessibility activists were there, along with TLC Commissioner Yassky. But Mayor Bloomberg was not. He made his comments via loudspeaker, not unlike the Wizard of Oz.
When asked at Bloomberg's celebratory press conference, surrounded by livery and taxi drivers on Wednesday, why he didn’t attend the event announcing an agreement he had fought for the whole year, Bloomberg said, “My job is here, I’ve got to work here. I was honored to speak, I don’t need my picture on TV all the time. I had the person there in the administration [David Yassky] that did the work. I was pleased and as I remember I had to cut my presentation short to light the world’s tallest menorah!”
Bloomberg also denied there was any bad blood between him and the governor. He said the negotiations actually resulted in a better bill. “What I wanted was 500 more yellow cabs for more city revenue and the Governor was focused on more accessibility.”
Waiting for the Final Language
Both camps have quieted down now that an agreement has been reached, but likely not for long.
Several issues still remain, such as will the city actually get over $1 billion from the sale of 2,000 yellow medallions and what the long-term Disabled Accessibility Plan will look like.
Marty McLaughlin who works with the lobbying firm Connelly, McLaughlin and Wolowz, forecasts much less revenue for the city than it projects.
“When you dilllute a market — any market — the product itself is diluted,” he said. “No way they’ll get a billion dollars for these medallions, they’ve been diluted.”
The Livery Roundtable’s Guy Palumbo said industry opponents are taking the holidays to rest after actively fighting the plan for a year. “It’s taken a big physical toll, people are relieved either way. There’s a feeling of let’s cool our heels till January 1st then decide what to do.”
He said they’re also waiting to see what the actual language of the law will be and if the chapter amendment passes both houses of the legislature in January. “All the advisors have been telling everyone it could be good or it could be terrible. What’s in the law? No attorney will go to court without the law. We understand what’s agreed upon but without the actual language it’s never-never land.”