Over the last year, it's become blindingly obvious that the D.C. Taxicab Commission is in for a shakeup.
There was the corruption scandal that lost Councilmember Jim Graham his oversight of the commission, which was already barely functioning. Vince Gray got elected with a wave of support from cabbies who expect an adjustment of meter rates, which they say have driven them to the brink of insolvency.
Today, Freeman Klopott writes up a report from the D.C. auditor which found that the Commission neither tracked licensing fees nor filed required annual reports to the Council for several years.
The most fundamental problem: More people want to drive cabs than can be supported by the number of people who want to take them (perhaps due to the continuing influx of Ethiopians, who control much of the industry). Piecemeal measures have been imposed to stem the tide. In May of last year, the Council voted to suspend the class at the University of the District of Columbia that drivers must take to become licensed, essentially freezing the number of cabbies at about 6,700 -- the highest per capita rate in the nation. And last week, the Commission quietly announced that it will stop accepting applications for new operators, individual drivers, and cab companies until April 4, 2011 "pending regulatory updates and on-going industry inspections and restructuring." (Effectively, it's just a continuation of a moratorium that went into effect on Nov. 2, 2008, and expired on Thanksgiving Day).
Between now and then, "the Commission will assess the needs of the industry and re-evaluate educational and testing requirements for limousine operators," and conduct "an extensive audit of the inventory of existing companies to ensure compliance with regulations to include appropriate office space, vehicle inventory, internal record maintenance and EPA Safety standards."
Staffers for Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who now has jurisdiction over the Commission, don't know the timeline for rulemaking, but say they'll be meeting with chairman Leon Swain next week to discuss the moratorium and related issues.
Some cab companies have already made their position clear: They're pushing for a medallion system like New York City's, which has capped the number of cabs at 13,000. Setegn, a part-owner of Allied Cab Company, prefers that method to the idea of stopping people from taking the licensing class.
"There is enough drivers on the street, it is like a zoo," he said. "We don't mind that anybody can get the license. What they should stop is the number of cars." Which of course works very well for companies who control cars, and drivers who already own their own.
Meanwhile, a few unlucky drivers have been blindsided by the clampdown. If you neglect to renew your license for over a year, you have to take the UDC course over again in order to get it back. Mohamed Egal missed the deadline, thinking he could just take the refresher course, only to find that it had been suspended -- and no amount of desperately emailing councilmembers has helped.
"They are pushing me to take welfare," he told Housing Complex, audibly upset. "People like me have been caught in the middle."