City Hall stands firmish against wheelchair requirements for taxis

Taxis. (scattered sunshine via Flickr)
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On Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's taxi commissioner, David Yassky, testified against a bill that would require all yellow cabs to be wheelchair-accessible, but even he didn't seem all that convinced of his argument.

"We believe acting on this bill would be premature and the Bloomberg administration urges the committee not to approve it at this time," wrote Yassky, in one version of his testimony that was, perhaps mistakenly, distributed to reporters at the hearing.

In another copy, which was also distributed to reporters, Yassky said, "We believe acting on this bill would be premature and the Bloomberg administration opposes it at this time."

Here's the final iteration of that thought, the one that Yassky actually recited: "The Bloomberg administration stands opposed to this bill."

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Right now, only about 230 of the city's more than 13,000 yellow taxis can accommodate wheelchairs.

A bill sponsored by Bronx Councilman G. Oliver Koppell would require that in two years time, all yellow cabs be wheelchair-accessible.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration oppose the bill.

Why?

That wasn't all that clear. Yassky raised several points, none of which he seemed to find convincing.

For one thing, he cautioned that there would be strong resistance from the industry.

That's true. David Pollack, the executive director of the Committee for Taxi Safety, submitted testimony arguing that "neither the industry nor the public can afford" the costs associated with heavier, less fuel-efficient, more expensive wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

But industry reluctance hasn't stopped the Bloomberg administration from pursuing other taxi initiatives in the past—the borough taxi plan and the Taxi of Tomorrow program, to name just two.

The accessible version of the Taxi of Tomorrow—the specially designed Nissan vehicle that will soon become New York City's taxi—costs about $14,000 extra.

But there's also a $10,000 state tax credit, which may, or may not, prove helpful (due to technicalities surrounding its applicability). And, as Koppell pointed out, medallion owners are not exactly in the red, with medallions now selling for more than $1 million a pop.

"At worst, it might mean a two-percent increase in the cost of a ride,” said Koppell. “At worst.”

"All I’m saying is, I think if you impose accessible requirements, you have to be upfront about the costs,” said Yassky. “You have to say who’s paying: medallion owners, drivers, passengers, the public, some combination. You can't pretend that there’s no cost.”

The bulk of Yassky's testimony pertained to the steps the city has already taken to achieve a very similar goal: increasing the accessibility of New York City's taxi fleet.

First, he's launched a new dispatch system, which he says is working well, and if their laughs of disbelief are any measure, disability advocates believe isn't.

Then there's the borough taxi plan, which would put 2,000 additional accessible cabs on the street and require that one fifth of the city's new breed of lime-green "borough taxis" be accessible too.

That plan is now held up in litigation.

It's possible, though not likely, that the Bloomberg administration's opposition, which is apparently based on little more than inertia and concern about imposing new costs on medallion owners, won't matter anyway.

Koppell, who forced this hearing through what's known as a sponsor's privilege, said he will force a committee vote on the bill, too.

But the bill's progress through the City Council will almost definitely depend on Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who's running for mayor with the support of Bloomberg.

Unlike her competitors, including comptroller John Liu, who submitted testimony strongly in favor of wheelchair access on Thursday; Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who at a recent mayoral forum indicated he supported full taxi accessibility; and former comptroller Bill Thompson, who also supports the bill, Quinn has yet to take a stance on the matter.

"We will carefully review the testimony from today’s hearing as we continue to explore the best way to achieve a fully accessible taxi fleet," her spokeswoman Robin Levine, told me in an email.