Cuomo collects his share of a Bloomberg project, and now outer-borough New York will have taxis, too

A taxi in Sunnyside. (chrisgoldny via flickr)
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Following nearly a year of debate, and months of public equivocation, Governor Andrew Cuomo will today sign a version of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s outer-borough taxi plan, one that gives significantly more accessibility to the wheelchair-bound than originally planned, and significantly fewer outer-borough taxis to New York City.

The fact that the governor has agreed to sign the legislation at all is more than some interested observers expected.

“I'm away so haven't seen it but I'm hearing there will be many lawsuits,” said Andrew Murstein, the chairman and C.E.O. of Medallion Financial, which is in the lucrative business of underwriting the sale of taxi medallions, and whose sector of the industry fiercely opposes the measure. The governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, sits on the company’s board.

Yesterday afternoon, at around 5 p.m., a compromise was reached. Twenty minutes later, the governor’s office sent word that at 5:45 he would reveal the agreement at a press conference on the second floor of the state Capitol. The mayor would participate by phone. Bloomberg’s taxi and limousine commissioner, David Yassky, who’d been on the second floor since noon negotiating the agreement, would participate in person.

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At the event in the governor’s Red Room, the governor revealed the outlines of the deal. He cast it as a victory for the disabled, which it is.

“It’s very important to me that the bill is something I’m proud of and that all New Yorkers can be proud of, and I don’t believe New Yorkers want a taxi system that is not accessible, period,” he said.

The mayor, participating by phone, called it “a huge victory for all New Yorkers.”

The compromise, watered down though it may be, is still a big win for the mayor, even if it's a conditional one. It was he who, in his January State of the City address on Staten Island, floated the idea of a borough-taxi system that would address one of the longer-standing idiosyncrasies in New York City law: Though yellow taxis rarely service most of the city outside of Manhattan, it has been illegal for the black livery cars that do service the outer boroughs to pick up hails off the street. They could only respond to prearranged calls. That did little to stop drivers and their patrons from taking part in what was essentially a black-market, cash-only system, with all the risks attending an activity that is illegal and unregulated.

“Why shouldn’t someone in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island be able to hail a legal cab on the street?” asked the mayor in January.

He promised, “This year, we’ll establish a new category of livery cars that can make on-street pickups outside of Manhattan.”

In June, the state legislature approved a bill based on the mayor’s plan by large majorities in both houses. It would have allowed up to 30,000 so-called “borough taxis” to work the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, as well as Upper Manhattan, north of 96th Street on the east side and 110th Street on the west.

As in the central business district, the airport would be off-limits to borough taxis for anything but prearranged service.

The permits would have been made available to members of the livery industry at the relatively affordable price of $1,500, and would last three years. The mayor and his supporters cast the plan as a boon to outer-borough New Yorkers and livery-car drivers alike.

The bill would also have helped the city manage what's expected to be a $2 billion budget deficit in 2013 by allowing the sale of an additional 1,500 regular yellow-taxi medallions. Medallions have sold for $1 million a piece, and the sale of the new one was projected by the city to garner more than $1 billion.

The problem was the governor. Though the legislation had already passed the Assembly and Senate, Cuomo was refusing to sign it and was indicating that, absent unspecified modifications to the text, he wouldn’t. In September, he said support for the bill he had been criticizing appeared to be “dissipating.”

In a statement put out in October, ahead of a taxi summit held in his New York City offices the following month, the governor said, “The optimum goal is to design a plan that provides taxi access to the outer boroughs, access to the disabled, revenue for the city, and respects the medallion franchise. We are working to fashion a plan that fairly balances those goals. I will not approve a plan that doesn't.”

The opposition that appeared to be wielding so much influence over Cuomo was, in its make-up, unusual. Of course, the yellow-taxi medallion owners, many of them multimillionaires with substantial political heft and a team of lobbyists including former senator Al D’Amato, opposed the legislation. So did the financiers that underwrite medallion sales. Both feared the new borough taxis and the new regular taxis would flood the market and dilute the value of their assets. They also questioned the city’s ability to enforce the boundaries of the central business district.

Some livery-company owners also opposed the measure, arguing that drivers, eager to take advantage of the new street-hail privileges, would abandon the pre-arranged business altogether. (Of course, yellow cabs don’t service the rest of the city precisely because it is too difficult to make a living in those neighborhoods relying only on street hails.)

Advocates for the disabled, normally foes of the aforementioned groups, comprised the final piece of the opposition. Their complaints proved the most compelling—only 232 of the city’s more than 13,000 taxis are wheelchair-accessible. The city’s new Taxi of Tomorrow—a vehicle that will standardize the taxi fleet—can't accommodate wheelchairs. And so an alliance was born: medallion owners found a useful cause in the wheelchair-accessibility issue, and disabled advocates were able to enlist the medallion owners’ institutional weight.

“It’s hard for me to be critical of the advocates—it’s such a compelling issue,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance and a supporter of the Bloomberg taxi plan, told me in October. “But there’s no question in my mind that this is sheer opportunism. The fleets' interest is solely to increase their hold on the industry and maximize their profits, and they are trying to put a good face on it by saying, ‘We’re working with disability advocates.'”

While some taxi drivers also opposed the legislation, fearing the potential competition, Desai, who represents the closest thing taxi drivers have to a union, supported it once she got assurances from the city that it would provide sufficient enforcement of the central business district boundaries.

So did a number of livery companies, and, of course, the livery drivers themselves.

Finally, last week, a compromise seemed nigh. In the flurry of activity preceding the special session that produced the governor's major tax-code overhaul, pretty much everyone involved with the taxi issue (except, notably, Cuomo) arrived at the impression that a compromise version of the bill would come up for a vote. The compromise called for reducing the number of borough-taxi permits from 30,000 to 17,000 and making 2,000 of them wheelchair-accessible. It also called for making all of the regular yellow medallions accessible.