Getting stuck in Albany is no one’s idea of a good time. It’s even worse when the thing stuck is not a person but rather a bill designed to improve transportation options in New York City, but that’s exactly what’s happened with the Mayor’s plan to expand livery cab access outside of the core area of Manhattan.
The plan, as we know it, is not without controversy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made it a goal to improve taxi access for everyone who wants to travel from one point outside of Manhattan to, well, everywhere. With 97 percent of yellow cab rides originated within Manhattan south of 96th St. or at an airport, millions of New Yorkers are left searching for cabs in vain. In April, Bloomberg proposed a plan to legitimize street hails for livery cabs. By granting 30,000 limited medallions to livery cabs, Bloomberg’s plan would allow these cabbies to pick up passengers anywhere in the city but in Manhattan south of 96th Street. It would raise $1 billion for the city — a key point — and provide increased transportation access.
But the best laid plans often run into politicians beholden to powerful lobbyist groups, and the City Council, under the influence of medallion owners, was destined not to pass the bill. Bloomberg went to Albany, and while the Assembly and Senate approved the bill, they have reportedly yet to present it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signatured. Residents want to see the changes, but fleet owners have been looking to kill the bill since mid-July. After all, if a taxi medallion is a better long-term investment than gold, why would these medallion owners — who generally are not the drivers — want to risk competition even if the 30,000 new medallions would go to drivers who wouldn’t compete with the yellow cabs?
The bill’s opponents have mounted some rather convoluted offenses as well. Take, for instance, this letter from Public Advocate Bill De Blasio. As Public Advocate, De Blasio is supposed to advocate for the people of New York City, but it appears as though he’s trying to shore up support from powerful and wealthy medallion owners as he eyes as the 2013 mayor race. He says:
This plan likewise threatens the livelihood of livery cab base owners and drivers. For decades, livery cab companies have offered reliable and legitimate pre-arranged cab service throughout the five boroughs of New York City. However, the current taxi plan will place substantial barriers in front of those providing legal, prearranged car services. If the Mayor’s plan becomes law, the existence of newly-permitted livery cabs capable of picking up street fares will no doubt significantly decrease the demand for prearranged car service. This plan will also likely increase the incentive for non-permitted livery drivers to pick up street hails illegally.
Apparently, De Blasio seems convinced that limo companies that guarantee pick-up service will find their customers waiting endlessly as drivers get needlessly distracted by street hails instead. I’m not entirely positive how one draws that conclusion from a plan that would allow street hails; it seems anathema to the workings of the car service market which relies upon good service and good word-of-mouth to gain popularity. But De Blasio’s words suggest exactly who is opposing the taxi measure.
As recently as ten days ago, it appeared as though the bill would die a death at the hands of powerful interest groups who have been lobbying Albany for months. Yet, the allure of the dollar is a strong one indeed, and Gov. Cuomo is pushing Bloomberg and the bill’s opponents toward a compromise. If the city could indeed realize $1 billion from the sale of new medallions, it is better to find a solution to the impasse than forego easy money in tight times. “When you can find revenue without raising taxes, grab it,” Cuomo said last week.
For now, we can glimpse the basic contours of a potential resolution. Facing criticism by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has championed the rights of the disabled, the old bill will give way to one with more protections for riders and yellow cabs. One Assembly representative — Micah Kellner — wants to sell 1500 new yellow medallions for handicapped accessible cabs in addition to 6000 new “outer borough” medallions. Of those, 1200 would have to be handicapped accessible. State Senator Martin Golden wants to cut the number of new medallions down from 30,000 to just 10,000 to placate the yellow cab industry.
And that’s where things are now. Powerful interests are fighting against a plan that would help millions of New Yorkers who would benefit from increased access to street hails. The resolution will drag on through the fall, but I’m optimistic that something positive will emerge. The bill and the debate, both nearly dead ten days ago, live on.