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May 2012

At the time that I am preparing this column, the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s historic vote authorizing the Borough Street Hail Livery Plan is only a few hours old, and I have already received hundreds of congratulations, many from those who will soon be providing this needed service in their communities.  Needless to say, I responded by congratulating them deservedly in return.

Today, I am proud to say that we are taking the needed steps to solve a problem that has been decades in the making.  Our taxi system – wonderful in so many ways, a true jewel of the City, a critical part of the transit network that transports 600,000 people a day – has evolved into a two-tier system.

One part of the City – midtown Manhattan, downtown, the residential neighborhoods just north of midtown – this part has first-rate street-hail service AND first-rate prearranged service.  The rest of the City – Northern Manhattan, along with virtually the entire boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island – has excellent prearranged service, but no legal taxi service.

We all know this vacuum has been filled by a huge underground market.  Over 100,000 times a day, passengers in these areas look for the convenience or ease of a taxi trip, see no yellow cab in sight, and flag down a livery car.  Unfortunately, the drivers who pick these passengers up are violating TLC rules as they stand today – and it was time for those rules to change to fit the reality.

Now, to be sure, the City government should never have let the problem go on for so long.  For decades, the TLC saw the illegal taxi market grow and grow.  Sitting in this chair, I can understand there was a reluctance to send inspectors and police officers to ticket the drivers making pickups on Flatbush Avenue and Bedford Avenue and Queens Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue and Tremont Avenue and Fordham Road, and yes, at the Staten Island ferry terminal.  Imagine if our inspectors did issue those tickets.  Because that is exactly what those who opposed this proposal were asking for.  I have heard some people suggest that we could just leave the rules as they are, but not enforce them -- but that is obviously not the right answer.  We can't ask our staff -- sworn law enforcement officers -- to pick and choose which rules to enforce.

No, let's be real about this.  When the medallion owners urged defeat of this rule, they urged us to put out of work the 10,000 or so livery drivers whose livelihoods depend – in fact if not in law – on street hail passengers.  Those drivers are not criminals – they are hardworking people trying to earn a living, and providing a needed service that is otherwise unavailable.

And the people who depend on that service -- the 80% of New Yorkers who live in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island -- they have to be our main focus here, even more than the industry.  The current rules push these passengers into illegal service -- actually enforcing those rules would leave them without any taxi service at all -- but having adopted the rules that were before us today will give them – us – the same legal, regulated, quality service available to people in midtown Manhattan – cars that are clearly identified as available to be hailed, so passengers know they are safe – and with meters, so they don’t have to haggle.

As I said in my opening remarks at the public meeting, the clearest reason to have voted for this, as six of my fellow commissioners did,  was that the 100,000 passengers who flag down cars every day in the boroughs are voting with their hands, telling us the rules need to change.  Those passengers may not have lobbyists, but they are the people we are here to represent, and their votes should count the most.

A decades-old problem is not solved overnight.  It has already been a long path to this day.  Fifteen months ago – in Staten Island – Mayor Bloomberg called on us to fix this problem.  After months of consultations and negotiations with organizations representing every segment of the taxi and livery industries – including organizations that formed solely as a result of this effort, and as a byproduct of the push by livery owners and bases to achieve legalization – after dozens of meetings with drivers, medallion owners, livery owners, bases – after presentations at every single community board in the City, and meetings with neighborhood groups and civic organizations in all five boroughs – after months of these discussions, and a huge amount of public debate, the State Legislature voted last June to allow hail service in the boroughs.

It is worth noting that the vote in the Legislature was overwhelming – and yes, it is true that the State Legislature includes members from outside New York City – but even putting that aside, and just looking at members from the City, the bill passed by a more than 2-1 margin in the Senate, and a 3-1 margin in the Assembly.

After still more discussion and negotiation, Governor Cuomo announced his support, the Legislature refined the law still further – by an even more lopsided vote – and the Governor signed the final product.  We – the TLC – then drafted rules to fill in all the specifics, and we put these rules out for public comment.  We had still more meetings and discussions – again, every single facet of the industry made comments, many of which were good comments and resulted in changes – we held numerous open forums, attended by hundreds of livery drivers and base operators.

The rule we considered today may not be perfect.  It is the product of compromise.  But it does address the key issue of enforcement, with tough penalties for drivers who get the new license and try to poach in Manhattan, and for drivers who don’t get the new license but try to keep picking up illegally – and I’d like to once again thank Commissioners Carone, DeArcy and Gjonaj for helping us to achieve that.  The rule also creates real accountability for livery bases that are complicit in those illegal pickups.

When I say it has been a long path, I am under no illusion that our work is over today.  The special interests who have been fighting this reform – after failing to persuade the Legislature, and failing to persuade the Governor, and apparently in anticipation of failing again today – have made a last-ditch effort in court.  So the taxpayers will have to spend even more money to fend off this frivolous litigation.

But more seriously, Deputy Commissioner for Licensing Gary Weiss and his team are already hard at work creating a whole new set of forms and computer systems.  Deputy Commissioner for Enforcement Ray Scanlon and his team have already begun the build-up for the enforcement challenge.  And as I said to my fellow Commissioners, I am sure that we will have more work to do.  Just as we continue to tinker with the rules for yellow medallions, fixing unanticipated problems and addressing new developments, I am sure this will not be the last word on street-hail liveries.

I want those in the industry, both opponents and supporters who have concerns about this or that facet of the rules we passed, that as the program goes forward, we will be here to deal with the issues that come up.

I think it is also important to point out that, in creating this new service, we’re taking great pains to ensure that we also protect and promote the stellar medallion taxi and for-hire service we already have.  Not only won’t the creation of street hail livery service harm these industries, but the increased enforcement we will bring to bear in connection with this new service will, I believe, actually strengthen all components of the City’s for-hire services, and will better protect us all from the wholly unlicensed operators.

Let’s talk about the public we all service for a moment.  One of the overarching questions during this process has been, what is best for them?  The truth is, as much as we would have it otherwise, we don’t often hear from the riding public at meetings such as the one we had today.  Though, this issue has been an exception, as evidenced by the ringing endorsement of the plan in the press by folks who use street hail service livery today outside Manhattan.  And it was a rare occurrence that at our last Commission hearing, we heard from Felix Bogdonovsky of Seagate, Brooklyn, a member of that riding public that we are here to represent.  He spoke of the tremendous convenience of being able to take a livery car home from the subway station in Coney Island without calling ahead.  And there are hundreds of thousands of Felix Bogdanovskys who will benefit from this service.  I truly hope that, in addition, to all the worthwhile testimony of the owners and drivers who spoke on this topic today, we will have the opportunity to hear again from the public who we all serve.

The public has been voting with its feet for quality street hail service in the communities outside of Manhattan to the tune of 150,000 unlicensed solicitations every day, and while they may have had some form of the service, they did not have the quality they deserve.  Up to us to provide them with the same safe, convenient service that folks in Manhattan enjoy.

Lastly, I want to add the perspective that, inasmuch as we contemplated the creation of a new industry today, the industries we regulate that have existed for so many decades were once new.  They came into being because the riding public asked for them, and because there were men and women who saw that need and had a desire to fill it.  I can’t say how many of us who were at the meeting today witnessed the birth of the livery industry, or who celebrated the birth of the black car industry as it split off from the yellow taxi industry, but I was privileged today to be here as we created the framework for yet another quality service for the people of New York City.

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