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Cab drivers, UTC begin Council-ordered discussion on taxi issues

Friday, August 20, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

In the recent Council-initiated discussion between the city’s Urban Transportation Commission and stakeholders in the Austin taxicab community, flat-rate fares were probably the easiest point of agreement for all concerned. Some other issues may to take a while to reach a consensus.

 

Taxi cab drivers appear to be united in opposition to a proposed flat-rate fare from Austin Bergstrom International Airport to either downtown or the University of Texas, although flat-rate fees are common in larger cities such as Washington DC.

 

“There was no consensus,” Gordon Derr told the Urban Transportation Commission last week after stakeholder input. “They decided the flat-rate fares were not useful at this time. There were a lot more negatives than positives out of that.”

 

Discussion is now limited to some type of minimum fare for airport taxicabs, to provide some benefit for ferrying customers to close-in hotels. The fare for close-in hotels still appears to be in the $13 range, which may or may not be a sufficient fare for cabs that have waited in line for passengers. Derr, at last week’s UTC meeting, noted such issues should be resolved before nearby Formula 1 racing begins.

 

Earlier this year, Council charged the Urban Transportation Commission with studying the flat-rate fare issue, a charge that was then expanded to consider other procurement and performance measures for Austin taxi franchises. Meetings have been long and protracted, with plenty of mission creep for the group. Still, Derr expects to present a final list of recommendations to Council on Sept. 23.


The tension appears to arise over when the city should and should not intervene in labor disputes. For instance, Derr noted that intervening between independent contractor and cab permit holders appeared to be unwise, especially if it involved some ultimate liability for the city in unfit cab drivers.

 

In other words, if the city was to urge a taxicab franchise to keep a driver that eventually caused an accident, would the city be liable for that?

 

On the other hand, Commissioner Dustin Lanier, who attended the stakeholder meetings, noted the city might be able to be able to leave such discussions between driver and franchisee but to push them towards arbitration. Such urging by the city, Lanier said, could keep the cost of labor disputes reasonable.

 

Solutions or no, taxi drivers still had a long list of job-related concerns, as expressed at last week’s UTC board meeting. Those included driver job security; health insurance and workers compensation issues; and the transference of taxicab permits by franchisee, which was unresolved at the UTC level.

 

Back in February, leading up to the taxicab discussion, the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid Foundation released an extensive survey of Austin taxi drivers that indicated a driver in Austin made an average of $2.75 per hour. According to the survey, most taxicab drivers had to work about 70 hours a week to make ends meet, often did not have employee benefits and had no voice in regulating their industry.

 

According to estimates, Austin has issued too many taxicab permits. A total of 630 permits are issued when an estimated 600 are necessary, Derr said. That excludes the 30 or so cabs that cater specifically to the disabled population.

 

Derr also noted that cab fares between 10pm and midnight were high, the highest time frame at the airport. About 280 calls for cab service in those two hours were noted in one recent month at the city’s airport.

 

Derr presented an overview of many of the points discussed between UTC and the taxicab stakeholder community.

 

Taxicab drivers want to be compensated for “time out” to take care of cleaning taxicabs. You can translate that to mean cleaning up a cab on a late-night run after a customer soils or vomits in the cab. The stakeholder preference appeared to be a per-ride charge, which was less confrontational than charging a specific passenger. That would provide each cab driver, potentially, with about $375 per year. That would be based on a dime charge to every passenger of a cab. Questions still remained whether the proper late-night drivers would be compensated.

 

Consensus appears to be to set up a limited number of taxi stands downtown for late-night pickups. That would use wayfinding signs and service zones to direct cab users to particular places, rather than requiring cabs to cruise around downtown.

 

An incentive for hybrid vehicles was rejected in favor of an incentive for overall reduced fuel mileage for various taxicab fleets.

 

The suggestion was made that cab drivers alternate at the airport, Derr said. The airport indicated that was not a particular problem at ABIA.

 

Lanier strongly suggested that the ordinance and regulation for at-hire vehicles be incorporated into city ordinance. That include anything from “for hire” vehicles to Cars 2 Go. Cab drivers also have urged the city to include pedicabs, and pedicab driver requirements, in a common code with other for-hire vehicles.

 

The portability of permits, for a cab driver leaving a franchise, is still unresolved, Derr noted. The appeals process in such cases is one that Lanier would prefer to see arbitrated by an outside party.

 

The point Lanier took away from the discussions was that the interests of the franchisees and independent contractors needed to be aligned in city policy.

 

“The economic interests of the franchisee and the economic interests of the drivers don’t point in the same direction,” Lanier said.

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