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Council votes to extend taxicab franchise agreements to 2015

Friday, April 23, 2010 by Michael Kanin

After listening to testimony Thursday, the Council voted to extend the franchise agreements of Austin Cab and Yellow Cab Company for another five years—overruling recommendations of staff and the Urban Transportation Commission. As part of the action, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez attached an extension for Lone Star Cab, which would lengthen that firm’s agreement to also expire in 2015.


In so doing, the council purposefully aligned the expiration of the city’s three cab franchise agreements. This will allow any changes that come out of an ongoing reevaluation of the cab companies’ agreements with the city to be made all at once.


Martinez argued that much of what was being examined could be adjusted, if need be, with a city ordinance. However, he called for a more cautious approach to a potential redress of larger picture issues.


“I do think it takes a whole lot more planning, quite frankly, and a lot more research before we move into any type of restructuring of our permitting process,” he said. “I’m open to that discussion, I look forward to continuing to have it, but I don’t think that’s something we’re ready to do at this point.”


For Council Member Bill Spelman, five years was too long. “I would like an opportunity after two-and-a-half years to make some substantial changes,” he said.


“I don’t know whether we’re going to be in a position to make substantial changes, but we might, and if we vote for the motion in its current form, we won’t be able to for five years,” he continued. “We’ve just begun a stakeholder process where some significant facts have surfaced which were news to me and I think were news to most members of the Council.”


Spelman cited recent findings that suggest that cab drivers don’t collect much in the way of wages and that, further, it’s difficult for hacks to get out of a tough situation thanks to a lack of portability when it comes to their respective permits.


On top of that, Spelman noted that the way that way the city interacts with its cab companies is flawed. “In this franchise agreement, there…is no invisible hand that is determining who is a winner and who is a loser,” he said.


“The only way we ever find out—well, we don’t find out,” he added, “We just decide we’re going to give this company a few more (permits), and we’re going to give this company fewer (permits). There’s nothing in the market, there’s nothing in the record available to us to help us guide that. I’m extremely uncomfortable in a situation where we’re picking winners and losers and the market is not, and our customers are not.”


The Urban Transportation Commission and staff had requested an extension of only two-and-a-half years, and then only for Austin and Yellow Cab. That would have aligned all three franchises for expiration in 2012.


Director of Transportation Robert Spillar, however, seemed most concerned with the alignment of the agreements. “Whether (the alignment) happens at two-and-a-half years out or at five years out is really a matter of policy that we would need direction from you all (about).”


The rest of the Council agreed with Martinez, and twice voted 6-1 to extend the respective agreements for five years. Spelman was the lone dissenter in each case.


After the hearing Whitney Cox, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide,  who represents a group of taxi drivers who oppose the franchise agreements, told In Fact Daily that, “for the next five years, no major changes in this industry are going to happen.” 


“(Drivers) are going to continue working 80 hour(s)…per week, it means they’re going to continue, basically, (to struggle) to get by,” she said, citing a study commissioned by TRLA that found that drivers make half of minimum wage. “(They’re going to have to) pick between paying their electric bill (and) paying their car payment.”

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