How medallion owners adopted the handicapped issue to fight Bloomberg’s borough-taxi plan

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Black car and yellow taxi. (Jason Kuffer, via flickr)
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The escalating battle surrounding Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to allow livery-car drivers to pick up street hails in the outer boroughs has created an unlikely, and quite possibly unnecessary, struggle between two constituencies: outer-borough New Yorkers and the disabled.

Both groups tend to have sub-par access to public transit options. Both groups would benefit from a more rational, more egalitarian approach to public transit, taxis and livery cars included. Yet they now find themselves on opposite ends of a conflict whose outcome will reconfigure the way New Yorkers navigate the city.

The confluence of events and political maneuvers that led to this awkward state of affairs began early this year.

On January 13, a group of advocates for the disabled filed a class-action lawsuit against the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the city bureaucracy that regulates the taxi and livery car industries. The suit charged that the city was violating city and federal regulations, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, by not requiring taxis to be handicapped-accessible.

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Certainly, it’s hard for a New Yorker in a wheelchair, and there are 60,000 New Yorkers in wheelchairs, to find a cab. Only 232 taxis, or 1.8 percent of the city's 13,237 medallion taxis, can accommodate one.

On January 19, six days after that class-action suit was filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, Bloomberg traveled to the St. George Theatre on Staten Island to deliver his annual state of the city address. During his speech, he made a radical proposal: “Why shouldn’t someone in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island be able to hail a legal cab on the street? ... This year, we’ll establish a new category of livery cars that can make on-street pickups outside of Manhattan.”

In other words, while one group pursued a lawsuit seeking to make the city’s taxi fleet more accessible to them, the mayor sought a remedy to another longstanding injustice of the public transit system: the scarcity of safe, legal taxis in the outer boroughs.

Four months later, both the disability advocates and Bloomberg were making headway.

On May 24, just a few weeks after the city selected a Nissan vehicle that cannot accommodate wheelchairs to be the city’s Taxi of Tomorrow, a federal judge rejected the administration’s request to dismiss the disabled advocates’ class-action lawsuit.

The mayor, meanwhile, was making progress of his own. In June, the state legislature passed a bill that was essentially Bloomberg’s outer-borough taxi proposal. The legislation would allow New York City to issue up to 30,000 permits to livery-car drivers that would enable them to pick up street hails. It would, in effect, create a whole new class of vehicle: the borough taxi.

The permits would cost $1,500, last three years and would be valid in the outer boroughs, and in Manhattan north of 96th Street on the East Side and 110th Street on the west side. The legislation also permitted the city to auction off 1,500 regular yellow-cab medallions, about one third of which would have to be accessible. The administration promised to set up a dispatch system to cater to the mobility-impaired. For the Bloomberg administration, the bill's passage constituted a coup. All that was needed now was the governor’s signature.

It's now October, and Cuomo has yet to sign the legislation. The medallion-owner-and-disabled-advocate coalition has grown concurrently stronger, and the governor has indicated that he won’t sign the mayor’s bill as is. The U.S. attorney last week wrote a letter to the judge overseeing the class-action lawsuit urging him to rule on behalf of the plaintiffs. A judgment in the case is expected this month.

Cuomo has “invited the US attorney for the Southern District of New York into negotiations over the measure to expand street-hail taxi service to the outer boroughs,” according to yesterday’s New York Post.

“There is a theory that says, yes, if the livery cabs are going to be permitted by the city, the accessibility should also apply to the livery cabs,” the Post quotes Cuomo as saying. “We don’t have a definitive opinion.”

The Daily News ran a different quote from Cuomo (whose father serves on the board of a company that finances medallion purchases): “The Justice Department’s position raises legal questions about the bills as passed.”

These are not good signs for the fate of Bloomberg's outer-borough taxi plan. But they do constitute an impressive demonstration of strategic maneuvering on the part of the medallion and livery-base owners and their disability-advocate allies.

These unlikely compatriots found each other in August.

“This really came about organically,” said Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, has cerebral palsy, and played a pivotal role in the formation of the alliance. “Both the disabilities community and the taxi-and-limousine industry saw the final product of the livery hail bill and everyone was upset about it for different reasons.”

The concerns of the taxi-medallion owners are largely financial. Medallions cost a lot of money—normally about $700,000—and those who invest in them want to preserve their investment value. They argue that the 1,500 new medallions allowed by the legislation, as well as the 30,000 newly empowered outer-borough taxis, will undercut the value of their assets. Some livery-base owners are also scared. If outer-borough livery-car drivers can pick up people off the street, who will go pick up grandma when she wants to go to the airport?

But the idea that the medallion owners are going to be paupered by Bloomberg's proposal is a tough sell. The growth in value of taxi medallions has outpaced both real estate and gold, according to a much-circulated Businessweek chart. (The Times just reported that two taxi medallions sold for $1 million each.)

And anyway, why would allowing livery car drivers to do legally what they're already doing in neighborhoods barely serviced by yellow cabs in any way affect the medallion owners’ Manhattan monopoly?

The taxi-fleet and livery-base owners needed a more compelling case. They have found it in the handicapped-accessibility issue.

In August, Kellner put forward a new proposal on behalf of a coalition that included medallion owners (like The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, the Greater New York Taxi Association, and the Committee for Taxi Safety), livery-base owners represented by the Livery Roundtable and disabled advocates including Kellner and the Taxis for All Campaign, which represents, among others, the United Spinal Association and the New York City chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The coalition proposed that the 1,500 new taxi medallions to be auctioned under Bloomberg’s plan all be handicapped-accessible. Further,the plan called for the 30,000 livery street-hail permits to be replaced with 6,000 livery street-hail medallions, 20 percent of which would be accessible. (Medallions, unlike permits, are preferable to fleet owners, apparently because they are transferable assets they can invest in. Permits, on the other hand, would be renewable every few years and, at $1,500 a pop, would likely be affordable to some livery-car drivers.)

“Our view is that we'll work with anyone or group who wants to support accessibility—on the yellow and livery side,” said Edith Prentiss, chair of Taxis for All, in an email. “In addition, an entirely new system of street-hail taxis that doesn't include accessibility is completely the wrong move. A plan to serve ‘under-served’ neighborhoods shouldn't shut out people (wheelchair-users) who are already not served at all."

It’s unclear what the Cuomo administration will do now, but given the governor's public comments, he seems likely to support a compromise similar to what Kellner’s coalition has proposed. A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

“It’s hard for me to be critical of the advocates—it’s such a compelling issue,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, which supports the mayor's plan. “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.'”

“It would be such injustice if the rights of one marginalized group were to be upheld by crushing the rights of another marginalized group,” she said.

Kellner made no apologies for the motives of his new allies.

“I don’t really care what their reasoning is,” he said, referring to the medallion owners. “What I want is accessibility for all people.”