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COMMISSIONER'S COLUMN

May 2010

I cannot believe that I am writing my final monthly column after serving for almost 9 years as your TLC Commissioner and Chair.  My emotions are a combination of sadness, pride and excitement.  Without getting too sentimental, I must say that it has been both a long and challenging, but successful journey at this agency over the past 14 years.  To take but a moment to reflect on the events of the past decade and a half is difficult – but I will nevertheless try to put things into perspective.  The years have included taxi strikes, transit strikes, blackouts, lawsuits, recessions and driver shortages, medallion sales, fare increases, border wars with other TLCs, lost musical instruments, meter zappers, and the list goes on and on….you name it - we saw it - and experienced it firsthand.      

My first days at the TLC involved floods, overcrowding and what was known as March Madness.  March 26th will be my last day at the TLC, and I visualize and compare the long lines around the corner and cramped quarters of what once was – and now proudly peer across empty waiting rooms at our facilities.  Every aspect of the agency has been made more efficient and transparent.  In 1998, as General Counsel, I drafted the most significant rule reforms that the industry had ever seen which raised driver licensing standards and caused the taxi strike of 1998 – including drug testing, criminal background checks, point systems, probationary licenses, defensive driving training and higher vehicle insurance limits.  I took over the agency as Chair just a few weeks before 9/11, and experienced a dramatic tragedy along with my TLC colleagues only a few short blocks away from Ground Zero; and we worked together with the industry to achieve economic recovery before most other affected industries.  I brought to an end border wars between New York City, New Jersey, and Nassau and Westchester Counties through reciprocity agreements and laws that set high licensing standards for the region – resulting in a nationwide model for inter-jurisdictional standards.  I helped to eliminate a taxicab driver shortage that took place in the late 1990s and now leave the agency with a record number of drivers; the shortage was never experienced again due to the living wage fare increase we provided to drivers for the first time several years ago.  We came to the assistance of New Yorkers more than once, during not only the 2005 transit strike, but also to help commuters get around during several franchise bus strikes, by developing and implementing a contingency plan with zone fares and group rides. 

Many of our accomplishments over the years are being implemented around the United States and the world, and we have firmly established ourselves as world leaders.  One crowning example is the taxi technology systems that were implemented here first, where credit cards, information screens and GPS transformed our service and opened a world of possibilities, including better service and more tips for drivers.  I set out to hold only the second series of medallion auctions since the Great Depression, which provided many of our drivers and small business owners with economic opportunities, and I maintained the economic health of the industry for many years where, during my tenure, average medallion prices soared from approximately $200,000 to over $775,000.  I helped to provide the first-ever wheelchair accessible dispatch medallion service in New York City by simply calling the 311 hotline.  Not only are there more accessible taxis in our City than anywhere in the country, but we have more hybrid and clean-air cabs than anyone else comprising over 23% of our fleet; helping drivers save on fuel costs while reducing our carbon footprint.  Finally, New York City was the first agency anywhere to ban the use of hands-free and handheld cell phones while driving in 1999, and just recently updated its laws to be the most stringent in the country to prevent accidents and save lives.

Upon leaving the agency, I have prepared a roadmap for future reform which will hopefully be followed – and this is really the first time the TLC has ever had a strategic plan.  This plan includes renegotiating the taxi technology contracts to take service to the next level, setting-up livery and taxi group ride standards all over the City to provide more efficient, cost-effective and safe service, continuing to improve the livery industry by implementing the accountability rules put in place last year, building a Taxi of Tomorrow that is an ideal, iconic, affordable, durable, environmentally responsible and accessible taxicab that will be on the road for many years to come, and a voucher program for taxis and liveries to provide service through the MTA’s Access-A-Ride program to save the City money and further enhance service to disabled passengers. 

I am gratified and relieved that Mayor Bloomberg has selected David Yassky as my successor, knowing that he is dedicated, smart, talented and committed to many of the same goals.  I have every bit of faith and confidence that he will continue to build upon our accomplishments and follow the Bloomberg roadmap to bring the TLC and our industry to greater heights of safety and customer service.  He is a friend and colleague with whom I have worked for many years in his capacity as a Council Member, and I can think of no better person to take my place.  I am confident he will continue the grass roots approach and open door policy that I have maintained from the very beginning. 

I would like to take a moment to thank some people – as all of these accomplishments were collective efforts.  First, I thank both Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg for giving me the opportunity to serve the City and for having the confidence that resulted in their appointing me twice.  I have learned so much from both Mayors and was continually inspired by their leadership and historic reforms of City government.  I am grateful as well to my colleagues and friends in City government and at the TLC.  Our staff is one of the most dedicated and hard-working group of impressive individuals that I have ever met.  Every day spent with them was a gift and I will miss everyone tremendously.  None of our reforms could have been accomplished without our Board of Commissioners, to whom I am grateful for their support, commitment and insight over the years.  Finally, I would like to thank the industries we regulate.  You have all become our partners and we have worked together – despite our disagreements – to make our industry the best anywhere.  I have always had an open door and the deepest respect for the business owners and drivers that I worked with over the last 14 years at the TLC.  Without a doubt, having visited them in their workplaces over the years to learn more about what they do and how they do it has helped me to do a better job.

Public service has and will continue to be the highest calling possible for me personally.  I have sacrificed for my family and for more than 1/3 of my life in government, working longer hours than anyone in the private sector could imagine.  If one were to tally all the hours I worked on a 35 hour work week basis, I probably worked for the government for over 25 years and should be much older right now. However, despite the sacrifices and the blood, sweat and tears that I put into this job, I look behind and ahead with pride and a sense of accomplishment that I leave the TLC in a better place than I found it – and helped to make it the best ground transportation regulatory agency in the world.

This is not a goodbye, but a hello!  I will remain involved in the transportation field and will be working, through the U.S. Department of Transportation funded University Transportation Research Center, to bring my experiences and successes in the for-hire ground transportation arena to be replicated throughout the country and the world.  I will also help further the study of taxi technology and for-hire service by seeking to enhance their role as part of our comprehensive transportation network, and to provide innovative solutions and improvements to the public transportation systems of our local governments.  To help accomplish these goals, I will remain President of the International Association of Transportation Regulators and will stay involved to help both private industry and my government partners improve safety and customer service for many years to come.

To all of my friends and readers over the years, I hope to visit or see you in person in future months.  It has been an honor and a privilege to serve, and I am humbled to have had the opportunity.  My best wishes to each and every one of you. Godspeed and God bless!

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