County Council proposes cab licensing reform
Taxi drivers had threatened to strike if changes were not made
Prince George's County Council members introduced a bill to overhaul the county's taxi cab licensing system on Tuesday, one week after area taxi drivers threatened to go on strike if reforms were not made.
County cab drivers are pushing the council to change the way taxi licenses are distributed so more cabbies can operate independently. Currently, major cab companies receive the majority of the licenses, making it difficult for drivers, who often are forced to pay large sums to use the company cars.
Additional details on the council's proposal, which was added to the agenda Tuesday, were not immediately available. Lawmakers had previously said they were not sure they would be able to tackle the issue by year's end.
"I have been trying to get support for [legislation], but I do not have the necessary votes," Council Vice Chairman Thomas Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel said in an e-mail last week.
Dernoga sponsored the new bill along with Councilman Eric Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park.
The 42-page bill includes a provision adding two independent cab drivers to the county board that oversees the industry, places new rules on how many licensed taxi drivers are allowed in the county and mandates that cabs be allowed to cruise the public streets of the National Harbor complex in Oxon Hill, which they are not currently allowed to do.
The introduction came one week after more than 40 protesting drivers appeared before the County Council calling for reform and warned they might strike to get legislation passed.
"There could be a massive work stoppage again," county cab driver Brian Holmes of Mitchellville told the council on Sept. 22. "And it isn't going to be just one day this time."
Holmes was referring to a one-day strike drivers staged in December as they launched a campaign to change county rules regulating the taxi industry, which they say creates unfair working conditions that leave them at the mercy of major operators.
Drivers asking for the bill say major cab companies hold a virtual monopoly on county permits for cabs and have asked the council to redistribute a larger share of licenses to independent operators and increase enforcement of abuses in the taxi system. Cab drivers have joined with the Advancement Project, a nonprofit legal group that unites immigrants and workers to push for reform to local laws.
In a report the Advancement Project issued in July, the group stated that major cab companies own all but 189 of the county's 785 licenses, and charge drivers an average of $320 per week for the rights to operate with the permits, which cost $100 per year from the county.
Drivers say the leasing system requires them to pay much of their profits to the companies, making it difficult to make a living.
"We're asking, what about us?" driver Henok Wogderes told the council at the meeting. "We are trying, but it is hard when the cab companies take away 50 percent of our earnings."
The introduction of the bill came the same day as the deadline for the council to submit new bills for consideration in the 2009 legislative year. Under council rules, any bill introduced after this week cannot be guaranteed to pass before the group goes on recess in December.
John Lally, an attorney for Silver Cab, which owns about 150 of the licensed cabs in the county, said the current system works. Companies use the fees to pay for precise dispatching networks to link passengers and drivers, and the rates they charge for drivers to rent their cabs are among the cheapest in the region, he said.
"It would be chaotic and destabilizing for all involved," Lally said of changing the licensing process. "The system we have is making the most amount of money for the most amount of individuals."
Adding more licenses would lead to more drivers competing for the same 5,000 to 6,000 passengers, Lally said. Taking licenses away from larger companies strips them of the resources they've amassed through years of hard work, he added, and could lead to poorer quality cab service for riders.
Council members who support changing the licensing system said the complicated issue will take time to change.
"The issue is not so much outright opposition as much as it [is] that the issue is so complicated and there is a high likelihood of unintended consequences," Dernoga said in his e-mail. "It's hard for council members to feel comfortable that actions will improve the situation."
Councilmen Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8) of Temple Hills and Eric Olson (D-Dist. 2) of College Park said they also met with taxi industry leaders, adding that it will take time to act on the drivers' concerns. Other council members did not immediately return requests for comment.
"Hopefully we can bring a lot of what their concerns are and tweak it," Knotts said.
As the council introduced the bill, Council Chairwoman Marilynn M. Bland (D-Dist. 9) of Clinton instead called for a task force of drivers, government officials and cab company owners to study the industry and recommend changes over the next year.
"We take this very seriously," Bland said.
Drivers said they want more than a task force.
"We have been working on this for eight months. We have met with each one of you," said driver Abay Gedey. "Our expectation is a little higher."
E-mail Daniel Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org.