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Council takes first step toward approving 45 new taxi permits

Friday, February 10, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Nearly six months after an outside transportation consultant recommended Austin put 100 more cabs on the streets, City Council voted last night to approve, on first reading, issuing 45 total additional permits to two of the city’s three taxi cab companies. If the two ordinances are approved on three readings, the city will grant 30 additional taxicab permits to Lone Star Cab and 15 to Austin Cab this year.

Council’s vote occurred after several hours of public input, much of it from taxicab drivers concerned that more permits will result in a glut of cabs on city streets and fewer fares to go around.

But Gordon Derr of the city’s Transportation Department said that the number of additional recommended permits is in line with the formula adopted by Council in 2003. That formula involves multiplying the number of franchise permits allocated the previous year by the percent of annual change in both the population of the city and the number of taxicab departures from Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

Derr told In Fact Daily that a large jump in that second number accounted for this year’s high number. Since the city’s third, and largest, cab company, Yellow Cab, currently holds 60 percent or more of the city’s franchise permits, it is not eligible to receive any additional permits, as per the City Code.

The numerous cab drivers at City Hall were not alone in their opposition to the additional permits. Council Member Chris Riley pointed out that the report released in September said that Austin needs more cabs during peak hours, not at all times, and that simply allocating permits would result in more taxis waiting in line at the airport and driving the city streets without fares.

“I’m afraid if we go ahead and issue these permits, in complete disregard of (the) recommendations, then we are setting ourselves up for continued problems,” said Riley.” And we’re missing an opportunity, because if we are going to address peak-demand service, then the time to do that would really be at the time when we’re poised to issue more permits. We have a window of opportunity here to do some meaningful good in terms of customer service and working conditions for cabs.”

Riley went on to argue that the ordinance would do nothing to increase the number of environmentally sustainable or handicap-accessible cabs in the city, issues that were raised by several speakers.

“I think we should take this opportunity to make thoughtful decisions about the expansion of our fleet, and to the extent that we do allow additional permits at this time then we should be addressing peak demand, sustainable vehicles, and accessible vehicles,” said Riley.

Hoping to do just that, Riley presented three substitute motions — each dictating what kinds of cabs would be given permits — all of which died for a lack of a second.

Council Member Laura Morrison defended the ordinance, meanwhile, saying that, despite its imperfections, it would allow Lone Star Cab to compete in the city market, thereby improving conditions both for cab drivers and their passengers. “We’re trying to balance a lot of different issues,” said Morrison. “We’re going to benefit from having a healthy third franchise, and that’s what’s going on here for me.”

Council approved 5-1 on first reading the Lone Star Cab ordinance, with Riley voting against and Council Member Bill Spelman off the dais. They then voted 6-1 in favor of the Austin Cab ordinance, with Riley once again the only no vote and Spelman back on the dais.

Despite Council Member Mike Martinez’s hopes that these newly permitted cabs would be on the streets by the beginning of the South by Southwest Festival on March 9, Assistant City Attorney Angela Rodriguez told Council that, according to the City Charter, the ordinance will not take effect for 60 days after the Council votes on it on third reading. That puts the current effective date decided by staff at May 21.

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