As I write this column, the summer is a rapidly fading memory. However, one event that will be remembered is the "Great Blackout of 2003."
Eight million of the fifty million people affected by the blackout were in New York City. With the temperature heating up, instead of a City in disarray or panic there were so many stories of perseverance and cooperation. The TLC and its regulated industries proudly stepped-up to the plate to lend their helping hands not only moments into the emergency, but long after most people arrived safely at home after the evening rush hour on August 14th. Without the City's subway system functioning, taxicabs and for-hire vehicles became the only way to get around for many people.
With lessons learned from past situations, TLC employees sprang into action to assist the City's overall emergency efforts. We immediately deployed staff to the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management to assist in directing traffic and in providing transportation for stranded passengers. After the rush hour, TLC enforcement hit the streets and remained in "high gear" until power was restored. I am pleased with the way our agency stepped-up to the plate during the blackout, and I know that New Yorkers are grateful for the professionalism and helpfulness of our regulated industries.
The TLC has received several compliments relating stories of drivers who took passengers to their destinations for free. We heard still other stories of drivers who comforted and calmed people in moments of fear and doubt, touching their lives in unexpectedly positive ways. Maximizing resources, many drivers and bases engaged in group-riding reminiscent of the TLC's transit strike contingency plans of 2002. All in all, New York City's taxicab drivers deserve great praise for the way they helped our city during the blackout. We are very pleased with the overall performance of our industries.
The TLC did receive 48 complaints from passengers of medallion taxicab and for-hire vehicles alleging various forms of misconduct during the blackout. The most common offense cited was operating "off-the-meter" and overcharging customers. Although we estimate the number of drivers who acted inappropriately to be very small, unfortunately the media highlighted and focused on these drivers more than on the overwhelming majority of drivers who did the right thing. There is absolutely no excuse for the misconduct of these drivers and the TLC will be prosecuting each of these cases to the full extent of the law. Several cases have been commenced and the drivers charged face the possibility of fines, suspension and/or revocation of their operator’s license and medallions. These prosecutions will send a strong message to those drivers who will hopefully now think twice before placing their greed above public service and compliance with the law.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg demonstrated exceptional leadership both during and after this emergency. Soon after the lights were turned on and the city was back to business, the Mayor established a task force to evaluate the City's response during the blackout. This effort is an excellent management exercise to promote a deeper level of understanding for future emergency response operations. The TLC is working closely with the Emergency Response Task Force and the Mayor's Offices of Operations and Emergency Management to identify areas in which for-hire service and transportation can be better utilized during future emergencies. I will keep all of our readers apprised of our progress in this area.
I would now like to bring you up-to-date on two medallion taxicab-related issues that the media has been following – the proposed medallion sale and fare increase.
With regard to the medallion sale, the City Council passed legislation authorizing the sale of up to 900 additional medallions over the next three fiscal years – for both individual owner/operators and corporate owners. That means the TLC has been granted the authority, as lead agency, to auction up to 300 additional medallions anytime between now and the end of June 2004. This could be followed by another 300 medallions being sold between July 2004 and June 2005, and up to a final 300 between July 2005 and June 2006. Also, for the first time medallions would be sold to both corporate and individual bidders who commit to using wheelchair accessible and/or clean-air fueled vehicles as taxicabs, at potentially less than the average sales price of other medallions. However, before any of these sales can take place, the City must complete an extensive legally mandated review process that is being performed by an independent consultant known as Urbitran Associates. This includes measuring the effect that more taxicabs would have upon air quality, traffic congestion as well as the socio-economic impact upon medallion owners, drivers and others. I am pleased to report that this long process is nearing completion – thanks to the many hours of work by Urbitran and City staff who assisted in the necessary data compilation. The next step is the issuance of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that the public will have the opportunity to comment on prior to any final decision as to whether, when and how many medallions will be sold. This is an exciting time and you will be hearing a lot more about this topic during the coming months.
The TLC is also in the process of evaluating two industry requests for a fare increase. Both groups, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade (MTBOT) and the Taxi Workers' Alliance (TWA), filed fare increase petitions with the TLC that are being reviewed. These petitions are not yet ready for consideration because the petitioners need to submit some additional data and make certain technical changes, but I can assure the industry that these requests are being taken seriously and will be thoroughly reviewed. I am confident that whatever action is ultimately taken by the Board of Commissioners will be well-informed, based upon verified facts and will achieve a fair balance of the interests of the drivers, owners and the riding public. The fare increase process is set forth in the New York City Charter and places the burden on the taxicab industry to prove its case. These groups have expended much time and effort on behalf of the entire industry, but for those who remain anxious about this issue I would like you to know that we understand your frustration about how long it is taking. I would like all drivers and owners who are reading this column to know that the fare increase process is not as simple as one might think. For example, due to the dynamics of industry business relationships, determining how additional income would be distributed between owners and drivers is a challenge. I would like to thank the industry for their patience and respectfully ask them to be patient for a little while longer.
Well, the holidays are almost upon us and I hope that means more business for all of our for-hire industries. Until next time, I would like to wish everyone a happy, healthy and safe holiday season.