Bloomberg’s taxi-overhaul plan clears one obstacle and is presented with another

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A taxi in Sunnyside. (chrisgoldny via flickr)
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This week, the mayor's ambitious plan to recreate New York City's taxi fleet got hit by another lawsuit, yet made progress toward becoming a reality.

First, New York City Comptroller John Liu finally gave the go-ahead to a taxi dispatch contract that's central to getting the city's new taxi system off the ground. Second, the Taxi and Limousine Commission board approved the rules that will govern a new class of "borough taxis" to service New York City neighborhoods that are generally underserved by yellow cabs.

And so on Wednesday, Taxi and Limousine commissioner David Yassky said, he and his staff were celebrating.

He dismissed the lawsuit, filed by the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, as inconsequential.

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"They failed to stop the legislature, they failed to stop the governor, this is their last-ditch effort,” he said, in an interview with Capital.

Even so, the main elements of the city’s controversial plan to modernize New York’s taxi and limousine fleet are still being contested.

According to the plan, a new class of 18,000 "borough taxis" will travel city streets offering hail service to neighborhoods in which taxis are scarce. Thanks to the successful lobbying efforts of disability advocates, who formed an unusual alliance with medallion owners in opposing the city's initial proposal, one fifth of those new permits would be for wheelchair-accessible cars. And, in a win for both the advocates and the Bloomberg administration, the city would also get to auction off 2,000 new, accessible yellow medallions, which have been projected by the administration to garner $1 billion in revenue that the city is relying on to close its budget.

But, crucially, the Bloomberg administration only gets to sell the bulk of those medallions after it presents a forward-looking plan for the phasing-in of full wheelchair accessibility, fleetwide, and Governor Andrew Cuomo approves it.

Since the day after the big Albany compromise late last year, when a preexisting suit seeking to force the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act was expanded to encompass the borough taxi plan, the plan has been in litigation. Yesterday morning, a Court of Appeals panels held a hearing on the A.D.A. suit, and a decision is expected shortly. Neither side is certain how the court will rule. 

On Wednesday, a powerful group of medallion owners called the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade filed a separate suit seeking to prevent the new borough-taxi plan, claiming, among other things, that the influx of 18,000 newly empowered livery car drivers would violate the medallion owners’ exclusive street hail privileges, upon which the very high value of their medallions is based.

That suit came as no surprise.

"The day it passed the state legislature, Ron Sherman said, 'See you in court," said Yassky, referring to the organization's president.

There's also the Cuomo question.

Only when the Bloomberg administration presents a plan to move toward full accessibility, and the governor approves that plan, will the city be able to sell those medallions. But the main element of the city’s plan is a dispatch service that will send out taxicabs to people in wheelchairs upon request. It's not clear that the governor will be approve that dispatch system, since the disability advocates whose concerns the governor says he's heeding abhor the idea.

At least some of these obstacles seem, in retrospect, like they were avoidable. The A.D.A. lawsuit, and, officially, the governor's reluctance to facilitate the plan's implementation, stem from the hard line the city has taken on handicapped accessibility. Of the more than 13,000 taxicabs on the street today, only 232 of them can accomodate wheelchairs. And the city chose for its fleet-unifying Taxi of Tomorrow a vehicle that also cannot accommodate wheelchairs.

On Thursday, the city’s corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, argued in federal court, as he has argued in the past, that the city is under no federal obligation to make the New York's privately owned, publicly regulated fleet wheelchair-accessible. The judges will rule shortly whether or not he is, legally, right. 

“It’s a hail system, and all we’re trying to do is make it accessible,” said Terry Moakley, a member of Taxis for All, a litigant in the A.D.A. suit. “We’re not asking them to do any special programs.”

The city has until June 30, 2013 to sell those medallions, in order to close the budget. So there is still some time left to settle the various lawsuits levied against the city.

Recent mediation talks between the Bloomberg administration and disability advocates were, however, unsuccessful. According to one of the participants, any chance at agreement was once again hobbled by the city's insistence that a dispatch system, rather than full accessibility, was the way to go.