How de Blasio stopped the borough taxi program
It was near the end of a long series of transportation-related hearings on Thursday when Bill de Blasio's taxi commissioner revealed that the mayor was putting the brakes on outer-borough taxis.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez had just asked the commissioner, Meera Joshi, why there had been nothing in her testimony about the city's "street hail" plan, during a hearing in Council chambers on the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s budget.
“I anticipated you would ask me that question,” said Joshi.
Her response was heavy on the processy sort of language employed by de Blasio himself whenever he talks about fixing green taxis without ever quite saying what's wrong with them.
But the thrust of it was this: The city's borough taxi plan will move forward, but only after an indeterminate period during which this administration can reassess its roadworthiness and fix it where needed.
Put another way, it’s on hold. And Michael Bloomberg's program, designed to improve taxi service in the outer boroughs where yellow cabs rarely go, now hangs in the balance.
The 2011 law authorizing the city to create a fleet of 18,000 green taxis allowed the administration to dole out those licenses 6,000 at a time over the course of three years.
The goals of the program were progressive: to improve taxi service for the majority of New Yorkers who do not live in Manhattan's central business district, and to make it possible for livery car drivers who were already providing street hails illegally to make a legal living by granting them all of the trappings of a proper cab, like meters, rooftop lights, credit-card machines.
The first 6,000 licenses were issued last year. The city can start issuing the second round on June 12.
As of now, it won't.
“Where we are right now is we’ve begun stakeholder engagement, which is a process where we need to speak to all of our stakeholders, including passengers, which is a group we don’t hear enough from, to get a good understanding of how the program has worked thus far,” said Joshi.
She said one of those stakeholder groups is advocates for the disabled.
To understand that argument, you have to know some background: The 2011 legislation authorizing the city to create a fleet of green taxis to service the outer borough neighborhoods also authorized the city to sell 2,000 regular yellow taxi medallions, which routinely sell for more than $1 million a piece and can serve useful budget-plugging purposes.
But that authorization came with a catch. Heeding advocates who decried the wheelchair-inaccessibility of New York City’s taxi fleet, the city would not be allowed to sell more than 400 of those yellow medallions until it got state approval for a plan to make the city’s entire taxi and limousine fleet more accessible.
Bloomberg, who fought desperately to get his overall taxi overhaul in place before he left office, never really believed in the notion of taxi accessibility and didn't submit that plan, effectively punting it to his successor.
De Blasio has since moved at a snail's pace.
He didn’t nominate Meera Joshi to run the Taxi and Limousine Commission until March, and the Council didn’t approve her until April. She didn’t hold her first hearing until the end of that month.
Now she has to hammer out an accessibility plan by a deadline that is also June 12 (the same date the city was supposed to issue those borough taxi licenses), and if that accessibility plan meets the demands of advocates, it will also impose stringent, program-altering accessibility requirements on green taxis.
“We are going to use the engagement process to inform our going-forward plan,” said Joshi.
But there’s another theory at play, one that the de Blasio administration has yet to disprove.
The big yellow fleet owners, the ones who feared Bloomberg’s borough taxi plan would undermine their industry and contested it in court, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to de Blasio’s campaign for mayor.
De Blasio, meanwhile, has consistently echoed the industry's objections to Bloomberg's reform of a livery system that had served them perfectly well, and did what he could to stop it before it became reality.
He filed an amicus brief in support of an industry suit challenging it. He spoke opaquely about the need to fix it. And, most recently, he installed one of his principal taxi-industry campaign fund-raisers as an assistant commissioner at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, where she’s supposed to help regulate the industry she solicited money from on de Blasio's behalf.
Joshi's announcement that the administration would halt the outer-borough plan, then, is perfectly consistent with his industry-proximate opposition on taxi reform, if not his progressive-populist governing agenda.
“Basically I read ‘stakeholder engagement’ to mean a round two of negotiations with fleet owners,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance and a supporter of the Bloomberg plan. “So, it’s OK to leave 6,000 workers on a waiting list as long as fleet owners get their demands met? That’s really the message that’s being sent out through this.”
"If government has an answer for what's actually happening in the outer boroughs with the illegal street hails, then we don't have a problem," said Cira Angeles, spokeswoman for the Livery Base Owners association and another borough taxi advocate. "But the issue is they keep happening every single day. What's the next step?"
Evgeny Freidman, a fleet owner who supported de Blasio's campaign and also supports his approach to borough taxis (fix them and then keep them in some altered form), lauded Joshi's decision.
"I think it is an extremely bold and courageous and intelligent move to delay, and make sure it works properly rather then jump on artificial deadlines!" he emailed, adding, "I am proud to be in an industry when we have such a chairperson that is politically so in favor of a policy, but is responsible [to] understand that it is not fully ripe! I commend meera and bdb."
Following the hearing, reporters converged on Joshi.
“Whenever you get involved in engaging people to get their opinions, if it’s real engagement, there are changes that are made,” she said.
What those changes will mean to the city’s fledgling fleet of borough taxis, to the passengers that have come to rely on them and to the livery car drivers who can supplement their incomes by doubling as green cabbies, remains to be seen.
Joshi wouldn't confirm that the licenses would be issued in 2014, though she didn't say it was impossible either.
"What's definite is that the program will move forward," she said. "The structure of how it moves forward is what we're going to get over the next process of engagement."
UPDATE: After widespread criticism, the administration has issued a statement saying that it will proceed with the second round of licenses this summer.