New Orleans District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer led off the March 27 meeting of the Transportation Committee by reading the ground rules: Five sections of ordinances, 20 minutes of public comment per section, 100 minutes total.
As Palmer moved on to the business at hand — introducing Malachi Hull, Deputy Director of the Department of Safety and Permits, Ground Transportation Division and Deputy Mayor of Operations Michelle Thomas — she had to pause intermittently. No one could hear her over the sound of a council staffer time-stamping dozens of comment cards.
It's rare that even a full council meeting will see standing-room only attendance, much less a committee meeting. But on March 27, hundreds of people — cab drivers and taxi company operators primarily, but also a significant number of tourism industry officials — crammed into chambers for what turned out to be a three-and-a-half-hour meeting of the Transportation Committee. The committee was convening to hold a public hearing on 32 city-proposed ordinances aimed to effect sweeping changes to the local taxicab industry — everything from regulating the age of vehicles used as cabs to requiring thousands of dollars' worth of new equipment.
The proceedings were almost immediately contentious. A few minutes in, well before the first public comment section, Palmer was already castigating the crowd. "I will have to clear the chambers if this is going to continue," she said, when Hull's reading of the proposals was interrupted by a chorus of boos.
The city says what it's doing is taxi "reform." For once, there's little dispute from any side as to whether that's the right word. The tourism industry — at least those representatives in attendance — wants better, cleaner, more fuel-efficient cabs in New Orleans. So do transit improvement groups like Transport for NOLA and advocates for disabled riders like Charles Tubre of the Advocacy Center.
Among other things, the proposals will create new accessible taxis for passengers with disabilities. They will set higher fees for the transfer or sale of a taxi permit — called a Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNC) — from $350 to $2,000 or 20 percent of the sale price, whichever is more. They'll require periodic drug testing for CPNC holders.
In most cases, taxi company owners, CPNC holders and the lawyers and consultants they've hired say they too want improved conditions and higher standards. But to them, it's too much, too fast.
"I think what the city is trying to do is cram this down our throats," said cab driver Sam Porter at the meeting. "If you cram this down our throats, you're going to have a bunch of unhappy campers. No tourist wants to have an unhappy cab driver."
The council is poised to vote on the ordinances during this week's regular meeting on April 5. The bills, which are large in scope, were unveiled in mid-March — a remarkably short time frame for City Council. Compare it to another controversial proposal this year — the citywide expansion of the French Quarter/Marigny curfew for children under 17. That was first floated in early January. Council members decided it needed further review, possibly a series of public hearings. As of this writing, it's yet to go to a vote.
Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, points out that the city and tourism officials have been holding meetings — invitation-only meetings between industry representatives as well as public meetings in City Hall — for more than a year. Taxicab regulation overhaul, Berni added, has been a priority for Landrieu since he took office in 2010.
"I think since we've been here we've met with drivers, owners, their attorneys. Dozens of times would be an understatement, at all levels of government, including the mayor," Berni said, pointing out that many of these meetings have been covered by local media. "Without a doubt ... all the major vehicle requirements have been discussed with various industries."
Those meetings, however, only covered what might be included in an overhaul package. The taxi and hospitality industries — as well as the public — have only known for sure what is in those ordinances for a few weeks.
The proposals also will require all cabs to install cameras (with driver modification features that record data on bad driving habits), radios, credit card machines and "passenger information monitor (PIM) systems" — the back seat screens that provide information (and often advertising) in cabs in New York and other major cities.
The equipment is not cheap. The figure that's been appearing in news reports is about $2,000 per vehicle.
"Not a single company has told me they can do this for $2,000," said attorney Leonard Berins, who, with partner Gerald Wasserman, has been hired by a coalition of cab companies and individual drivers representing about 500 of the city's 1,600 CPNC holders. "I'm being told $3,000, $4,000, sometimes more."
Hansu Kim, who owns San Francisco's Desoto Cab Co. — one of the city's largest cab operators with 120 drivers — was in New Orleans last week for the meeting. He believes that the overhaul is long overdue.
"It's remarkable to me that the city doesn't really have a fleet of accessible taxis," Kim said.
Kim, who is interested in starting and operating an alternative fuel-run, "green cab" fleet here, said that much of that equipment is actually available for little or no initial cost.
"Some companies will install PIMs basically for free" if the operator agrees to pay a percentage fee to have them in the car, Kim said. (Kim used to work as a consultant for a PIM manufacturer.)
Kim said that other equipment will ultimately lower costs for permit holders. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends cameras for improved driver and passenger safety, so that addition can reduce insurance costs, Kim said. And credit card machines often display a gratuity prompt, which, he said, is less intrusive and thus more effective than a driver asking a passenger for a tip.
Cab drivers in New Orleans might be skeptical about those claims, especially the ones who drive older cars. Most of the new equipment changes appear to apply upon passage. What's more, the bills, if passed, will immediately outlaw all salvage vehicles — meaning vehicles totaled by an insurance company and fixed up by a cab operator — and any cab more than 10 years old. (This changes to seven years old by 2014.) That might prove to be particularly problematic.
"Seventy-five percent of the vehicles are 10 years old or older in New Orleans," said Joseph Rubino, a Florida-based transportation consultant hired by Berins and Washington, who say it's more like 60 to 70 percent. "So as of April 5, 75 percent of the cars have to be off the road. Isn't that silly? It defies credulity. ... This is like something out of a Kafka novel."
According to Berni, the requirements would likely not be enforced until a Ground Transportation Bureau-set inspection date later this year, giving drivers time past the April 5 cutoff.
"On the age limits [of vehicles], that's one of the areas where we're trying to find common ground," with drivers, Berni said, adding that some cities (Houston, Miami, Chicago and New York among them) have much stricter age limits for operating cabs — four to six years in some cases — than those being sought here.
Asked about the quick timeline on implementation, Kim said these measures have to happen sometime. In other cities, including San Francisco, operators were "dragged kicking and screaming" into putting them into place.
"There's no way the industry will move without a specific deadline," Kim said.
Still, even Kim said the city is overplaying its hand when it comes to new vehicles.
"If you're going to have new vehicles, it should be about a year."