D.C. Taxis--No Zones, No Justice?
Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who decided that he would resolve the District's seven-decade-long battle over taxi fares, thought he could get this done by personal decree--after all, he's a senator, right?
Adrian Fenty thought he could do the senator's bidding and change the taxi fare system in a matter of a few months. Hey, what could be easier than carrying out an errand for a United States senator? A mayor can do that, can't he?
So here we are, a week from the date when all D.C. taxis were finally supposed to scrap the city's ancient, beloved and loathed zone fare system and adopt the meters that nearly every other city on the planet uses to measure taxi fares. And where are we? Getting there, but in fits and starts.
The mayor took a bold stand yesterday and just as he defied predictions that he would adopt a GPS/zone fare system, so too has he now rendered inaccurate reports that he would delay the switchover to meters by five months. Fenty instead insists that every cab be equipped with a meter by May 1--or else. Well, sort of: He did slip in a bit of an out, allowing that cabbies will be inspected for meters and if they don't have them, they'll get a warning and really, really have to have them by June 1.
Will even that deadline slide? Don't bet against it: A pesky, recalcitrant fleet of cabbies has already sued the city and created deep uncertainty just by declining to buy the meters they were ordered to obtain.
A D.C. Superior Court judge this week smacked down the cabbies' lawsuit, saying that Fenty indeed had the legal authority to put Levin's power play into effect. But the judge waited so long to issue her ruling that the drivers have gained some real power; after all, if there's not enough time to acquire and install the meters by the deadline, then the District can't well force its fleet of cabs off the streets, can it? Now the cabbies are asking the courts to hold the city back yet again, pending appeal of the court's decision.
Judge Brook Hedge makes it clear in her ruling that this change in fare systems is an expression of congressional rule over the city--a Democrat's anti-democratic fiat. "The District of Columbia shall require all taxicabs licensed in the District of Columbia to charge fares by a metered system," says what the judge refers to as "the Levin law."
Quoting Levin, the judge reminds us that the senator issued his decree out of personal pique. The current system is "especially unfair to our great number of out-of-town tourists who have to cope with a complicated, confusing zone fare system," Levin said seven years ago, early in his crusade. "In my own experience, as a DC resident, I have encountered at least 10 different cab fares for the exact same trip to and from National Airport." Poor baby--he couldn't figure out the fare himself, so he'll just change the system for half a million people.
The judge, who was appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, makes clear that the District and Fenty did pretty much everything the law requires of them to change the fare system legally--public notice, hearings, a council report, the whole works. But Judge Hedge sounds as if she's leaning toward the cabbies' argument when she notes that Fenty does not have the authority to unilaterally change the fare system, since D.C. law puts that role in the hands of the mayor-appointed taxi commission.
More than 20 years ago, the Council created the taxi commission expressly to have "an agency with exclusive jurisdiction to regulate taxicabs and to establish the methodologies for fares," the judge writes.
But as with everything else regarding the District, Congress' role trumps any D.C. law, and if Levin's law mentions only the mayor as the guy in charge of completing this little task for the lords of the Hill, then by gum, it's the mayor who gets the authority to do this, even if D.C. law specifically puts such matters in the purview of the taxi commission.
"Congress could have named the [taxi commission] as specifically as it named the Mayor..., but it did not," the judge writes. "Instead, knowing the Mayor was charged with ensuring the laws be faithfully executed, Congress required the Mayor to make an affirmative decision to implement a meter system or not...."
You can read the judge's entire 24-page decision if you like this sort of thing, or you can boil it down to the two words that would easily have gotten the same message across:
The meters will eventually be installed; I feel reasonably confident in predicting that. But the cabbies have more mischief up their sleeves, not least of which is the stubborn refusal to buy the meters. Might we see extended civil disobedience on the part of the District's cabbies? Would the Fenty administration really try to keep the cabs off the streets if they're not equipped with meters? We've got months and months of taxi excitement still to come.
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