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Council committee wants co-op taxicab proposal

Thursday, April 30, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

While City Council mulls over ways to renew the city’s contracts with its three existing taxicab franchises, the drivers who contract with those companies appear to be inching closer to their dream of a fourth, a worker-owned cooperative.

The Council Mobility Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend that the full Council direct city staff to bring forward a proposal for such a co-op franchise. This would occur independently of the renewal process for the current franchise agreements that expire in August.

“I’m personally liking the idea of a co-op … but we’re not saying get rid of the franchises,” said Council Member Delia Garza, who sits on the committee. “At the end, I hope we’re at a place where we’ve come to some middle ground here and where we respect the franchises for what they bring to the city as well as listening to the drivers’ concerns.”

Committee members did not specify a time frame for establishing the co-op, nor did they specify the number of taxicab permits the franchise would receive.

Biju Mathew, secretary for a labor union known as the National Taxi Workers Alliance, spoke at length about the potential benefits of a taxicab co-op. He argued that working for such a company would help improve wages and significantly reduce costs for drivers, who currently pay their respective companies for the right to use taxicab permits.

Mathew added that creating a co-op, which would use a smartphone app to dispatch drivers, would also help taxicab drivers compete with transportation network companies, or TNCs, such as Uber and Lyft.

In a separate vote, the committee unanimously recommended that Council adopt one-year renewals of the city’s current taxi agreements with a few amendments.

The amendments include revising the formula for the annual number of available taxicab permits to incorporate performance measures, extending the usable life of taxicab vehicles as long as they pass inspections and issuing the permits in the names of the drivers rather than the companies.

Committee members struck an amendment that would have recommended that Council allocate an additional 50 taxicab permits to each of the city’s three franchises, which are Yellow Cab Austin, Lone Star Cab and Austin Cab Company. However, they remained open to the idea of allocating more permits, though that number is currently up in the air.

The city currently has 756 permits available.

Yellow Cab Austin President Ed Kargbo pushed back against the one-year length of the franchise agreements, stating that the brief time frame could make it more difficult for the companies to invest in additional infrastructure and finance future operations. He asked for a more expansive stakeholder and input process before Council makes major changes to the agreements.

Council adopted the ordinances associated with each agreement on first reading last Thursday and will likely consider them on second reading May 21, ahead of final adoption June 4. It must adopt the ordinances on three separate readings in order to comply with the City Charter.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the committee, repeatedly reassured those present that the franchise agreements could change significantly before final adoption. She also noted that they are only one element of Council’s reconsideration of ground transportation regulations following the introduction of TNCs last year.

“I believe that it’s important for us to look at a level playing field for ground transportation,” Kitchen said. “With regard to the taxicab companies, I think that there are some additional changes we may want to make vis-à-vis the TNCs. I think that a one-year extension would allow us to do that.”


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