Cuomo: Bloomberg’s outer-borough taxi bill would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act

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New York City taxis. (Gary Burke, via flickr)
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In an appearance on former governor David Paterson's radio show this afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo took another swipe at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s outer-borough taxi bill, contending that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and would therefore not pass muster with the courts.

“My counsel believes, David, that if we pass a bill that is along the lines of the current discussion, that it’s going to violate the A.D.A. and it’ll be thrown out anyway,” said the governor, echoing an argument commonly made by advocates for the disabled, who oppose the mayor’s livery-overhaul plan because it does not include enough provisions for the wheelchair-bound.

In June, both houses of the legislature passed a bill based on a proposal from the mayor that would legalize the exceedingly commonplace, yet illegal, practice of livery-car street hails in the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan. Since most of the city isn't served by yellow cabs, livery-car drivers have come to fill the void, though they do so at the risk of hefty fines.

"In general, the point of the original bill was to enable every section of the industry, the yellow taxis, the liveries, whose businesses are based entirely on pre-arranged [pick-ups], and those liveries for whom street hails comprise a chunk of their revenue, simply to be able to continue doing what they’re doing with minimal disruption," said Micah Lasher, the mayor's chief Albany lobbyist, when I talked to him earlier today.

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The bill, passed by large majorities of the Senate and Assembly in June, would allow up to 30,000 permits for so-called Borough Taxis, available to drivers for $1,500 each, that would enable them both to respond to pre-arranged calls and pick up passengers off the street. It would also allow the city to auction off an additional 1,500 regular yellow-taxi medallions, which now sell at $1 million a piece and therefore would be expected to garner more than $1 billion in revenue for a city facing a $2 billion budget deficit in fiscal year 2013.

The governor has since June declined to sign the bill, saying it needed minor changes. In the meantime, opponents of the bill—taxi medallion owners, many of them multimillionaires, as well as some livery-base owners, medallion financiers and some taxi drivers—have piled on, arguing the bill would dilute the value of their assets and undermine their competitive position in the trade. They have also formed a strategic alliance with disability advocates, with whom the industry has historically been at odds.

The disabled are indeed under-served by the taxi industry—only 232 of the about 13,000 taxis in circulation can accomodate the wheelchair-bound. The mayor’s new Taxi of Tomorrow is not wheelchair-accessible. And the mayor hasn’t made matters any better with his contention that people in wheelchairs can’t hail cabs anyway, because it’s too dangerous.

The resulting fight has pitted two under-served populations against each other: the largely non-white, largely poor communities that lack access to yellow cabs and good mass-transit options, and the disabled.

“One of the main issues, there are several, but one of the main ones that’s at the top of the list, especially for me, are the rights of the disabled and the accessibility of the system,” said the governor, whose father serves on the board of the powerful Medallion Financial. “And that’s what we’ve been trying to grapple with over these past few days. I’m not going to have anything to do with a bill that does not respect the rights of the disabled community.”

In recent weeks, the mayor's staff has been negotiating feverishly with the governor and legislature in an effort to convince Cuomo to sign the legislation. Most everyone directly involved with the talks—but not, apparently, the governor himself—believed that a compromise version of the bill would be included in the governor's big tax-code overhaul. The bill included a number of concessions from the city to advocates for the disabled, including one that would require that all of the new medallions be for yellow taxis that are wheelchair-accessible, and that 2,000 of the borough-taxi permits be for accessible livery cars. The amended bill also lowered the total number of borough-taxi permits from 30,000 to 17,000, providing less competition to medallion-holders.

The governor left it out of the package of measures considered (and quickly approved) in the special session.

“We were genuinely surprised when the plug got pulled on Wednesday," said Lasher.

In a taxi summit held the following week, the governor publicly took Taxi and Limousine commissioner David Yassky to task for not doing enough to ensure the marketability of the wheelchair-accessible borough taxi permits. As the governor noted in his comments today, retrofitting livery cars for accessibility is expensive.

In negotiations, the city has countered that there is a bill passed by the legislature and awaiting the governor's pen that would give car owners a $10,000 tax credit for retrofitting their vehicles. The city has also said it would waive the $1,500 fee for the wheelchair-accessible livery cars.

The governor has countered that that is not enough and demanded a more ironclad plan, which the city has submitted, and whose details are unknown. The ball, in other words, is now once again in the governor's court.

"Look we are the progressive capital of the nation," said the governor this afternoon. "This is the State of New York. We should be setting a new standard, and we shouldn’t be going backwards. There are states that do this much better with their taxi service than we do. So I’m interested in moving the ball forward, but moving the ball forward in a progressive and legal way. And that’s what we’re gonna do, or we’ll just, we don’t do anything and we’ll go back to the legislature in January and we’ll try to figure it out in the normal course of business, which is how this is supposed to be done anyway."

"So, I won’t try to read into your remarks too far, governor, but sure sounds like a veto coming to me," responded Paterson, to which the governor had no comment.

The mayor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.