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.
Comptroller John Liu further complicated the New York City’s "Taxi of Tomorrow" project Wednesday by saying he wouldn’t approve the city’s contract with Nissan because the vehicle selected isn’t wheelchair accessible.
Surrounded by other elected officals and advocates for the disabled, Liu said he believed the contract ‘as is’ violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But Liu, who is under an ethical cloud for campaign finance violations, may not be able to reject the contract outright. Liu's campaign treasurer and a fundraiser have been indicted for using "straw donors" to circumvent city camapaign finance rules.
Kate O’Brien, spokeswoman with the City Law Department, said, “the law limits the issues upon which the Comptroller may refuse to register a contract. None of the matters raised, including ADA compliance, would constitute lawful grounds for refusing to do so.”
The city chose Nissan to be the single provider of yellow taxis for the next decade beginning in 2013. The new cabs will be rolled out as older cabs are retired.
The Nissan NV 200 has transparent roofs, USB chargers and extra legroom. However, even though it’s a mini-van, it isn't accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Liu said “requiring cabs to have independent climate controls is nice but when you fail to make them accessible to a growing number of New Yorkers, it’s not just a slap in the face, its illegal.”
Taxi and Limousine Commssion spokesperson Allan Fromberg called Liu’s objection to the contact “mysterious and ill-informed.” He said, “Nissan is providing a wheelchair accessible version of the Taxi of Tomorrow, the city will create an additional 2,000 wheelchair accessible medallion licenses and they’re on the cusp of launching a demand responsive wheelchair accessible taxi dispatch system.”
Disabled groups sued the city over the Taxi of Tomorrow, and in 2011, a federal court ruled that the city, through the Taxi and Limousine Commission, violated ADA because it failed to provide passengers in wheelchairs meaningful access to taxis. But an appeals court has allowed the city to put new taxis on the street without complying with the lower’s court’s order.
Currently, only 2 percent of the city’s taxi fleet is wheelchair accessible.
Attorney James Weissman with United Spinal Association, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit against the Taxi of Tomorrow, rejected the notion that a dispatch system will provide “meaningful access” to cabs for the estimated 60,000 New Yorkers in wheelchairs. He noted that a separate system just for people with disabilities is a classic violation of civil rights.
“If it was any other protected class would we even question whether or not this was a shameful practice?” he asked. “What if we were running a separate system –substitute any other protected class…women have to take a separate system, blacks have to take a separate system – they can’t get in the same cabs…it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
By taking on the taxi issue, the embattled comptroller isn’t only taking on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg He’s going head-to-head with TLC Commissioner David Yassky—his rival in the 2009 runoff for the office of Comptroller—an office many political insiders believe Yassky would make a run for again.