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Chaos at D.C. Taxicab Meeting as Cabbies Shout Down Regulators

Thursday, November 14, 2013 - 12:55 PM

taxi, D.C. DCTC Chairman Ron Linton exchanging heated words with a cab driver (Martin Di Caro/WAMU)

A meeting of the D.C. Taxicab Commission ended in an uproar on Wednesday, as nearly 300 cab drivers organized by the Teamsters union erupted in anger when the commission’s chairman attempted to read aloud a letter from an unhappy cab customer.

The cabbies’ shouts of protest drowned out Chairman Ron Linton, who stopped reading the customer’s complaint about poor service, pounded his gavel for the last time, and adjourned an ear-splitting session that seemed to accomplish little other than giving frustrated drivers a chance to vent.

Organized by Teamsters
More than 1,800 Washington cab drivers have joined an association with the Teamsters, who organized a rally outside the commission’s meeting on a frigid morning.

Cabbies holding signs saying ‘Respect’ and ‘Justice’ chanted and marched into One Judiciary Square with the intention of voicing their complaints about a slew of new regulations designed to improve the customer experience in taxis: mandates for credit card acceptance, new dome lights, and a new red-and-gray color scheme -- all of which drivers say is costing them money.

But meeting almost immediately deteriorated into a confrontation. Cab drivers repeatedly ignored Chairman Linton’s warning to not applaud, boo, or debate as drivers took turns addressing the commissioners. Teamsters Local 922 president Ferline Buie also addressed the panel.

“It is no longer business as usual in the Washington, D.C. area,” Buie said. “We are united. We are powerful, and we are strong.” The room exploded into sustained applause as cabbies rose from the seats, and it became clear Linton’s admonishments would fail to calm drivers’ pent up emotions.

The chairman fruitlessly pounded his gavel, and was forced to speak over the sound of protesting taxi drivers and Teamsters shouting into a megaphone right outside the building’s exit doors, their chants of ‘Shame on you!!’ bleeding into the exit room.

The cabbies were further agitated when Linton denied drivers an opportunity to speak unless they had submitted a written copy of their remarks ahead of time. Commissioner Paul Cohn explained the commissioners cannot understand the heavy accents of some foreign born cabbies, so the written copy was necessary to follow along.

Many complaints
Hundreds of the District’s approximate 8,500 cab drivers have experienced a variety of problems since installing credit card payment devices in their vehicles, from late payment deposits to glitches with equipment. On Wednesday, the drivers called to the meeting by the Teamsters blasted the taxicab commission for — in their view — restricting their choice to a field of eight credit card-processing companies, one of which has since gone out of business.

Chairman Linton responded that the commission simply gave taxi companies what they wanted, after the Contract Appeals Board ruled the process that ended in a $35 million contract awarding the entire D.C. cab fleet to Verifone had “pervasive improprieties.” Once the Verifone bid was shot down, the commission opened the process to competition among vendors.

After the meeting, Linton seemed unfazed by the all the shouting and confrontation.

“I would assume what it accomplished was a sense of getting out of their system whatever is bottled up in there and being able to yell at the commission,” said Linton after the cabbies exited the meeting room.

Still watching Hitch
The D.C.-based tech startup Hitch has its credit card payment processing system installed in the backseats of about 1,600 cabs, but is not allowed to sign up any more drivers under a restriction imposed by the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

Linton said Hitch is still being scrutinized after complaints’ by drivers that their fares were not being deposited into their bank accounts within the required one business day of the transaction.

“They are not meeting what we require them to meet. That's what's wrong. Why they are not meeting it is for the technical experts that we have sent over there to find out,” Linton said.

The taxicab commission is fining Hitch $6,000 for failing to pay drivers, but in an interview with WAMU 88.5, the company’s CEO David Miller said the fines are being appealed and the District is “unjustly” restricting his operations.

“We only had nine complaints out of 1,800 drivers so it is really less than half of one-percent of our driver base,” Miller said. “I don’t think that our company or any other company should be limited from being able to compete in the marketplace.”

Miller said his lawyers have submitted a four-page legal argument in a bid to lift the restriction on signing up drivers.

“It’s a material hardship for our fleet partners as well as a lot of the drivers that are unhappy with other [payment service providers] who would like to join Hitch,” Miller said. “So it’s not only a hardship for us, but it is a hardship for other drivers in the marketplace who have been disappointed in their [payment service provider] and want to join us, as well as our fleet partners who have additional cars they’d like to install with us.”

Drivers’ complaints have targeted other companies. U.S.A. Motors collapsed within weeks of installing its credit card system in more than 900 taxis, leaving those drivers scrambling to find another system in order to keep their vehicles on the road.

The French company Gleike Taximeters has also drawn the ire of cabbies who say the firm’s technology — installed in more than 700 taxis — frequently fails, and its officials are close to impossible to contact. Gleike is suing two Washington cab companies, Grand Cab and Diamond Cab, for breach of contract.

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