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Council OKs 20 new Lone Star Cab permits on first reading

Friday, September 28, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin City Council continued its efforts to secure the viability of its three taxi franchises Thursday night by approving on first reading 20 additional franchise permits for Lone Star Cab. Should Council approve the measure on third reading in November, Council will be closer to satisfying the demands of a Dec. 15, 2011, resolution, which called for aligning the ownership requirements of Lone Star with those of the Yellow and Austin cab companies.

The vote was 5-2, with Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley opposed.

Counting the 30 permits the city granted Lone Star Cab in June, the company will have received 50 permits in 2012. That’s 31 more than the 19 Council had previously allocated. That over-allocation worried Riley, who has expressed on numerous occasions his belief that the city should stick to its established permit-issuance formula.

Riley argued that Council should only deviate from that formula for “compelling policy reasons, such as advancing important goals that we need to achieve.” The most important goal, he said, would be creating a more environmentally sustainable fleet. Riley said he knows of a company that wants to create an entirely green cab fleet, one made up of only hybrid cars, but by granting more permits to Long Star, “which will put us even further beyond our formula than we are today, we are making it that much harder to start a new franchise, to make progress on those important policy goals.”

Tovo also expressed her skepticism that issuing more permits would move Austin closer toward its policy goals. She pointed in particular to the goal of assuring living wages for drivers who already have permits.

“I want to see Lone Star remain viable and strong and continue to serve this community, but I do think we need to balance the success of the franchises with the responsibility we have to drivers to make sure they can earn a viable, good living. I do think putting more permits on the street jeopardizes their ability to make a good living,” Tovo said.

Tovo went on to say that she felt Council needs to see data related to those first 30 permits before agreeing to issue 20 more. However, when she asked her colleagues if they would be willing to postpone the vote, Council Member Mike Martinez pointed out that it would only be a first reading and that there would be plenty of time to consider the impact of the new permits before the second reading on Oct. 11 and the third reading on Nov. 2. Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar said his staff will most likely have data related to the first three months of operations by late October, between second and third readings.

That data will also include numbers from the Austin City Limits music festival.

For Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the issue came down to ensuring that all three city franchises are viable and on equal footing, which he said is not the case. “I think we’re working toward that goal to put them all in a competitive posture,” Leffingwell said.

The mayor went on to say that he is sympathetic to the plight of drivers and that the best way to serve them and the city is not to open the market to other parties, as Riley advocated, but rather to secure the footing of the three existing franchises. After that, he said, “I’m going to be very, very reluctant to look at additional franchises or to look at additional permits for the existing franchises.”

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