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Transportation Department revises sweeping taxi recommendations

Thursday, May 10, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Austin Transportation Department staff has scaled back a set of draft recommendations aimed at saving the city’s flagging taxi franchises.

On Tuesday evening, Acting Mobility Services Division Manager Jacob Culberson revealed to the Urban Transportation Commission a revised version of the proposals he initially debuted during the UTC’s Feb. 13 meeting.

“Some of our regulatory reform ideas were well received by everyone,” he said. “And some were not.”

Most notably, Culberson nixed the recommendation to allow taxicab services to set up under operating authority agreements rather than as franchises. That proposal, opposed by Yellow Cab of Austin but supported by individual drivers, could have allowed smaller operators to create a virtually unlimited number of new companies encumbered with fewer regulations.

Current code limits the number of franchises in town to five. However, the market, disrupted as it’s been by the likes of ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft, is only sustaining four taxi companies who have doled out 1,062 permits between them. And according to John Bouloubasis, chief of Yellow Cab’s parent company, Texas Taxi, the number of active cabs is well under that.

“I can tell you, between all four franchises, there’s about 600 actually on the road,” he said, adding that “400 of them are out at the airport,” where they’re most likely to find fares.

Bouloubasis, who spoke against the operating authority recommendation in February on the grounds that it could lead to more cab drivers camping out at the airport, praised the latest version of proposals, saying he agrees with “95 percent” of it.

Culberson withheld specific details about the proposals, citing ongoing work with the city’s Law Department to suss out any particular gremlins. However, aside from the deep-sixed operating authority point, the list largely resembled that which he brought to the UTC in February.

The package would do away with redundant vehicle inspections, allow cabbies to use virtual meters, and make color schemes and top lights optional. It would also allow the companies to implement surge pricing under certain conditions and also adjust their fleet sizes ahead of major events such as the South by Southwest festival.

That fleet adjustment would only be allowed every quarter, a time frame that Chair D’Ann Johnson suggested didn’t lend itself to the short demand spikes created by the large festivals.

Culberson cited a shortage of hands in his office that would be able to handle more frequent requests for new permits.

Johnson also criticized two other draft recommendations – incentives for electric vehicles and vehicles capable of picking up customers in wheelchairs – for being too tepid.

“I hope there will be a bigger vision because if we wait too long on transitioning this, the cabs are going to be gone,” she said.

Johnson also suggested allowing cabs to drive in transit-priority lanes such as those on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets in downtown Austin.

Culberson told her his team had been considering that idea. The only hitch, he said, is that cabs stopping to pick up passengers could interfere with buses and bikes in those lanes.

Johnson replied that simply telling cab drivers not to do that would be sufficient.

“They follow traffic rules all day long. That’s what they do,” she said. “I don’t think saying, ‘You can’t pick up a hail in the bus lane,’ is that difficult for the taxi drivers to figure out.”

The UTC ultimately decided not to vote on any recommendation for or against Culberson’s draft proposals, though Commissioner Daniel Hennessey commented without controversy that the commissioners “generally support it.”

Culberson said he expects to send the legally vetted raft of recommendations to City Council at its June 14 meeting.

Photo by Bradtvcc [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

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