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Fix the Taxi Commission, or abolish it?

The DC Taxicab Commission has a problem dealing with reporters, but that's far from the only problem with the Commission. Does it need reform, or should it be abolished entirely?

Photo by dominiccampbell on Flickr.

Even before the current video imbroglio, there was widespread agreement that the Taxi Commission was broken. It simply skipped many meetings. It's supposed to set taxi policy, but Mayor Fenty took power away from the board.

Now, all of their decisions must go through a mayoral appointee who often simply doesn't implement their directives. That means a board is making decisions but lacks the power to carry them out.

The commission has 3 industry members, but currently they are representatives from hospitality industries, not from drivers directly. People differ on whether the taxi drivers should be directly represented, but at the moment they're in limbo, where they're supposed to have representation but don't.

Tommy Wells was already going to be tackling the Taxi Commission problems even before the recording incident. What should the Council do?

The more I watch DC government, the more I feel that these boards and commissions don't work. They have a significant role in setting policy, but the last two mayors, at least, haven't appointed people with an eye toward specific policy directions. Instead, they appoint people they know personally or big campaign donors.

Mayor Fenty, for instance, was widely considered more friendly to development interests than anti neighbors, and the actions of his Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development certainly reflected such a bias, often to an extreme. But when making appointments to the Zoning Commission, a board with enormous influence over development (arguably more than DMPED), he didn't seem to consider this at all.

This divorces policy too far from our elected officials. The Council or Mayor can set a policy direction for the city and voters can either elect or replace them because of it. But when policy is being made by people picked just for arbitrary reasons, there's no link from the people to the policy.

Many commissions take a lot of time, but don't pay members, dramatically limiting the range of people who can serve. Often that limits the field to either people with a professional interest in the issue, or retirees.

Government seems to work better when decisions are either made by the legislature, or by political appointees directly reporting to an elected executive. The elected legislators or executives might not always be very good, but at least people can throw them out of office if they're doing a sufficiently bad job.

Perhaps instead of a Taxi Commission, the agency should report to the Mayor like most other agencies. In fact, 2 current DCTC members are also DDOT employees, Scott Kubly and Ralph Burns, from the division overseeing the Circulator, streetcars and Capital Bikeshare. If the Mayor wants administration officials setting taxi policy, they could simply set it directly.

Should it be subsumed into an existing agency? The Taxicab Commission serves two roles. It sets taxi policy, such as fares and whether to limit supply with medallions. And it handles licensing and inspections for drivers.

The former function would best belong at DDOT. That agency already is setting transportation policy and can consider big picture issues like how to encourage taxis to serve areas of high demand and/or areas without good transit options. On the other hand, the latter function is closest to the current work of the DMV or DCRA.

DCTC's responsibilities could be split, with DDOT setting policy and the DMV or DCRA handling licensing. However, having other split functions has created problems in the past. Traffic and parking tickets, for instance, are written by MPD or DPW and enforced by the DMV under regulations formulated by DDOT. That's often created many problems where DDOT might set a rule but nobody enforces it, or tickets get written but nobody goes after drivers to collect the money.

If DDOT gets the job, it could create a whole large licensing role that DDOT hasn't had to handle and might turn into a distraction. On the other hand, if all of the responsibility goes to DCRA, then they might not think creatively about policy. DCRA and the DMV is structured to grant and monitor permits, and could have an inherent orienation toward not changing much.

Or, DCTC could remain its own agency but without a commission, instead having all responsibilities handled by mayoral appointees subject to laws passed by Council. Finally, the commission could stay, perhaps with added power to carry out its own decisions.

What do you think would work best?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Abolish Dena first, then worry about the rest later.

by SW on Jun 28, 2011 10:25 am • linkreport

Although it would only deal with a symptom, and not the basic issue, the D.C. Council should require the DCTC to meet in televised rooms, such as those at JAWB.

In order to correct the clear violation of the First Amendment and the violation, if only in spirit, of the open meeting law, it is necessary to force the meetings to be open. Meeting at JAWB also removes the involvement of the park police, federal officers, from a District function.

by Bob Summersgill on Jun 28, 2011 10:43 am • linkreport

Very good point, David. Any volunteer "blue ribbon" commission is used to kill issues, not to solve problems. They exist to sweep things under the rug through delay, "study," and obfuscation. No one on them cares because they don't get any compensation. It sounds a lot like an ANC.

There's a reason why all federal executive branch agencies are headed by political (presidential) appointees: they have a limited time implement their ideas and are responsible to the president. If the public doesn't like what the appointees do, they consider it in the next election.

Kind of like Rhee and Fenty. We need more Rhee and Fenty examples rather than toothless, time-sucking, uncompsensated DCTC's. Or ANC's.

by Cavan on Jun 28, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

+1 for using imbroglio.

by TGEoA on Jun 28, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

Didn't GGW write just last week that experts shouldn't set policy? That can be applied here too. The commission is supposed to represent the various interests who have stakes in the regulation of taxis. These people shouldn't be setting policy. They should exist solely to make recommendations to policymakers.

by Tim on Jun 28, 2011 10:56 am • linkreport

Swain, under Fenty, did a very good job with what he had to work with and got a lot done, including doubling of inspectors. The commission has a history of corruption and ineffectiveness. It would be best to make it part of the administration.

by beatbox on Jun 28, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

There's no easy answer here, but taxi's are part of the District's transportation network and shouldn't be left to be managed by a commission/board that's not part of a larger full time DC agency.

Many of the issues with DCTC are compounded by its status, including the medallion legislation. The position of those supporting the medallion legislation is that it would improve and professionalize the taxi fleet. This could also be accomplished by having a better functioning body that oversees taxis and does better enforcement and provides better resources for cab drivers.

by dcvoterboy on Jun 28, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

I think you're asking the wrong question. We should ask what policies we want to happen.

Secondarily, then go about structuring the government to achieve those policies in the best feasible way.

Ok, the Taxi Commission "sets Taxi policy" but what does that really mean? What do we want them doing, specifically? Setting fares? Issuing medallions? Talking a lot and then actually doing nothing? (Hey, that's a legitimate policy goal sometimes)

Once there is an actual policy goal, perhaps then would be a better time to think about changing the boxes on the org chart.

by WRD on Jun 28, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

Tim: I said that elected officials should be deciding the high-level policies. The key is to get the decision as close to the officials as possible.

Having a bunch of volunteers and some industry stakeholders decide the policies isn't any better.

The Mayor is elected. He should be making decisions. He can't personally make all decisions, so he can delegate it to people that he picks. It's great if those people have some knowledge, too, but they work for the elected official, not for some kind of unelected commission.

People are unhappy about the L and M Street bike lanes being canceled. We know we can contact Gray, and people Gray picked, and ask them to make a change. If there were some kind of transportation commission with a bicycle rep, a Circulator driver rep, a few citizen reps, etc. then Gray would be able to say, nope, I didn't decide this, don't blame me, even if he nominated the people.

by David Alpert on Jun 28, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

Talk about perfect timing...

I followed the procedures on the taxi commission website filed a complaint against a taxi driver yesterday via email. Anyone know how long it should be before I receive the formal acknowledgement of the complaint, or if I even will receive it? Can I expect anything to be done or am I just wasting my time?

by Jim Ed on Jun 28, 2011 11:23 am • linkreport

I'd like to see the DCTC killed only if it means that the mish-mash of unaccountable taxicab companies can be disbanded in favor of a centralized, standardized system like the one in New York. Cabs in DC are much more unreliable and hard to come by than they should be, and this is a failure of the private sector. And as far as the vehicles themselves go, you might as well pool the companies' purchasing power to modernize the fleet. It's a shame that police vehicle auctions are the main source of taxis in the nation's capital.

by Omar on Jun 28, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport

I think it's very interesting that you're advocating a position pretty much in stark opposition to one of the historically central tenants of Goo-Goos, namely the professionalization of government and the separation, as much as possible, of policy and politics. This isn't a criticism, just an observation.

Personally I think there's nothing inherently wrong with the structure of an independent commission being the setter and enforcer of policy. But this model is obviously failing in this instance. Obviously a culture of secrecy and possibly corruption has taken root in the commission, and maybe starting over again us the only way to kill that.

But I really don't think a central part of the solution is to add more policital influence. I think that will just shift the focus of the corruption influences, and I believe it is ultimately easier to root out a corrupt and self-dealing culture from an independent commission than from the politicians. Which, again, is one of the central tenants of Good Government.

by TM on Jun 28, 2011 12:17 pm • linkreport

Why not a regional approach?

by Kevin Beekman on Jun 28, 2011 12:20 pm • linkreport

TM: You're right. I think the professionalization push from Goo-Goos was entirely misguided.

by David Alpert on Jun 28, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

The discussion is really moot. Gray made promises to taxi drivers that he would return to a system that favored them and was anti-consumer. He is delivering on that promise and undoing any progress made under Fenty.

by beatbox on Jun 28, 2011 12:27 pm • linkreport

@Jim Ed - I submitted a complaint years ago and got a response within 1-2 weeks, and a "hearing" scheduled at which I could present my complaint.

by ah on Jun 28, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

Great comment @WRD!

Instead of limiting ourselves to thinking about how to shoehorn the existing DCTC into existing DC government, the bigger question of how do we want to / should we manage the taxi system in DC?

Taxi's are part of DC's transportation infrastructure, and should be managed as such. Its also a private industry subject to government licensing and oversight. Just like GGW can dream up metrorail maps, can't GGW dream up a new taxi management structure for DC?

A new taxi management system that works for everyone: protects consumers/riders, offers full service across the District, maintains the environment of competition and small business owners, strong regulation and enforcement, but also provides central resources for these same cab drivers - access to purchase approved taxi vehicles (like NYC), and other things that I haven't though of, but maybe GGW can?

by dcvoterboy on Jun 28, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

Building on what Kevin Beekman said, what if you put it under WMATA? Obviously we're talking about a much broader rethinking than what David is suggesting (and also has even less chance of happening), but it has some interesting implications. I would have to imagine a sizable number of taxi trips in this area are cross-jurisdictional (particularly to and from the airports), putting it under WMATA can simplify the fare tables and increase access (drivers will no longer say "I can only take you if you are staying in DC/Arlington/MoCo/whatever"). It could also have positive benefits for MetroAccess, as those MetroAccess trips taken via cab would presumably be cheaper for WMATA. Finally, taxis could represent a positive revenue stream for WMATA, which they could use. Now obviously it's not a WMATA core competency right now, but neither was running buses until it was added to their portfolio.

by Steven Yates on Jun 28, 2011 1:30 pm • linkreport

I think the problem is the commission hasn't been given a chance to work. The "agency" approach is essentially what you had under Fenty. Swain reported to him. It worked fairly well from a consumer standpoint but the drivers were not completely wrong in feeling left out. The system would work now if we would let it. Have a full, robust commission, composed of equal parts the Industry and public, informing and guiding a strong commissioner. If we can't have that, then yes, we probably should have the agency model.

by Jeremy on Jun 28, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

WRD and dcvoterboy make the right points. The WMATA idea is insane, because taxis are a jurisdiction by jurisdiction issue. Insane isn't really fair, but it's the right idea but the wrong organization.

Taxis should be managed under DC's transpo policy. In an unpublished paper laying out a master transportation plan framework for DC, I included taxis, for obvious reasons. But you won't find the word taxi even once in the Transportation Element of the Comp. Plan, and since we don't have a Master Transportation Plan in the city, this is but one other failure of not having one.

San Francisco's MTA is to my way of thinking the best example of where DC should move transpo policy. MTA has MUNI transit, parking, streets/livable spaces, walking and biking, parking enforcement, taxi policy, and police traffic enforcement. With an exception here or there, it's not dissimilar from how Transport for London is set up (which likely shapes the Steven Yates idea, which if the region weren't three separate states and multiple counties, would actually make sense).

In DC, we also have the DMV, but I can see letting that stay as a separate agency, but still under a ..... TRANSPORTATION COMMISSION.

Eather than have all these g** d*** committees for peds, bikes, Circulator, etc., let's have a Transportation Commission and include taxi policy as a subcommittee (and ped activity and bike activity as subcommittees too, etc.).

It should be something like ZC, BZA, or HPRB, and the proposed but never created Planning Commission. (Frankly, I'd rather have a planning commission that included transpo policy, but I think that ends up being a gargantuan set of responsibilities that becomes unmanageable. So have a PC and a TC, like Arlington, Alexandria, Rockville, Tempe, etc.)

David raises a good point about DDOT and the management of the regulatory function but still, a lot of it should just be straight up regulation anyway. You don't pick someone up, it gets reported and investigated etc.

by Richard Layman on Jun 28, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

Taxi commission should regulate safety and consumer protection only. Drivers should be licensed for safety, cars should be licensed for safety (monthly or quarterly safety/sanitary inspections?) and drivers should be required to post rates on their doors.

Other than that, the taxi commission should get out of the way. They should not regulate the number of drivers, the number of cars or the type of cars, nor the rates.

by rnarnarna on Jun 28, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

Talking about regionalism....

Regional Solution Needed For Taxicab Regulation
(Thursday) September 23, 2010

To The Editor:

In 2005, Alexandria overhauled the ordinances governing our taxi industry. Designed to improve the quality of the service provided to our residents and visitors, as well as the quality of life of our drivers, the ordinance has changed the industry significantly.

Some companies have shut down. New companies have been created. With Council prepared to review the ordinance, the industry and drivers, groups are working hard to craft changes to their liking. Yet perhaps this is the best time for Council to step back and take a broader look at the regulation of this industry, and the most effective ways for government to protect consumers and ensure the availability of service.

The DC region is an alphabet soup of public entities that regulate taxi cabs. In addition to the many local governments who each issue operating licenses for taxis, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission (WMATC) and others all get into the act. A tourist stepping off a plane at National Airport is confronted with a dizzying array of options, all predicated on them knowing the exact political subdivision they are visiting. Each jurisdiction has grappled with their own individual battles over taxicab regulation, highlighted of course by Washington DC’s recent transition from zones to meters.

What justification can there be for clinging to this system of diffused (and confused) regulatory authority? This issue is crying for a regional solution. It’s time to get local governments out of the business of regulating taxicabs, and provide for a regional regulatory regime that is more efficient, understandable, and better for drivers and passengers alike.

Fortunately, we have the building blocks to make this happen. In WMATC, we have an entity created by compact between DC, Virginia and Maryland, and designed to provide for this type of regulation. It’s time to give them the resources, authority and tools to take on complete regulation of taxicabs throughout our Metropolitan region.

Justin M. Wilson
Alexandria, Virginia

by Kevin Beekman on Jun 28, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport

Kevin -- I don't disagree. It's just too damn hard to try to work on that. DC has problems with the current system. So does PG County. MoCo has had problems in the past. There are controversies wrt the Dulles Airport and BWI with concessions, etc.

But to get to the point of one system, first we'd have to have one system for transportation planning generally, and that we don't have.

by Richard Layman on Jun 28, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

@Jeremy said "I think the problem is the commission hasn't been given a chance to work."

No offense, but did you just move to DC? The "commission" has been around for decades and has just been a rubber stamp for the cab drivers. No, the cab drivers had NO basis of complaint for Swain that held water.

by beatbox on Jun 28, 2011 8:29 pm • linkreport

Gray strikes again. The state of DC cabs is a disgrace - archaic, polluting, unsafe vehicles driven by dangerous drivers. The fact that the meter is a NEW feature of DC cabs is says it all. The cab industry is an organized, criminal enterprise that must be broken. It won't be long now, though - five years, ten tops.

by asuka on Jun 29, 2011 12:38 am • linkreport

Have faith in our ideas, vote Gray. LOL'z....

Swain, under Fenty, ran the DCTC well. Your friend Vince chose to appoint a crony and look where we are.

Pure Comedy, David.

by Rake on Jun 29, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

Between this and the fate of the L&M bike tracks it's looking like Gray was a fantastic choice of endorsement.

by Omar on Jun 29, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

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