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Local cabbies file suit to get delayed funds from the District.

To judge from the number of District taxicabs lined up outside the Mayflower Hotel on this glorious Saturday afternoon, you’d think that D.C. was back to business as usual. The hacks shuffle their cabs up Connecticut Avenue NW in time to the bellhop’s signals and jump out to assist with luggage. It’s an utterly normal scene.

Appearances can be deceiving, however. The post-Sept. 11 decline in tourism and business travel has dealt local cabbies an unrelenting financial beating. For many, the fare they pick up at the Mayflower is the only action they’ll see all day.

This post-attack downturn isn’t local cabbies’ only worry. Nearly 200 taxis flunked their city inspections two weeks ago, as the city after a six-month postponement, moved to enforce safety regulations, then due to take effect on Oct. 1. To add insult to injury, a loan fund promised by the city to help cabbies pay for new safety devices hadn’t disbursed a cent when the District’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) started failing vehicles for lacking the safety upgrade.

Eventually, the deadline for compliance was extended again, to Dec. 1. But the confusion over inspections has led frustrated cabdrivers and outspoken D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars to fight back in U.S. District Court. The ad-hoc industry grouping filed suit against city officials (including Mayor Anthony A. Williams) and members of Congress with oversight responsibilities on District affairs on Oct. 9 to compel the release of the cab-safety funds and force the city’s hand on other regulatory issues as well.

At the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson sent the case to D.C. Superior Court, removing the members of Congress from the suit. A hearing date has yet to be set in the lawsuit’s new venue.

The cab-safety issue was a thorn in the side of the city long before it ended up in court. A spate of crime against cabdrivers in late 1999 and 2000 was what prompted the District’s Taxicab Commission to approve a measure requiring cabs to install one of three city-approved safety devices: a bulletproof partition between passengers and drivers, a camera inside the cab, or a safety light to alert other cabs and authorities of a crime in progress.

Cabbies initially faced an April 1 deadline to obtain and install a device, but they were granted the delay until Oct. 1. They also won a promise of nearly $1 million—including $759,000 left over from the city’s 2000 snow-removal budget and a supplemental $241,000 from the 2001 operating budget—for a revolving loan program to aid them in paying for the new equipment.

These funds were held up by various accounting and administrative snafus in city agencies and never disbursed. But the city stuck to its Oct. 1 deadline. According to a DMV spokesperson, 185 cabs flunked inspections in the days following Oct. 1. The official extension of the deadline took effect Oct. 5.

After receiving word that so many cabs were flunking, Taxicab Commission Chair Lee Williams sent an informal memo to the DMV, notifying the agency that the deadline had been extended. The DMV did not honor the memorandum until the appropriate paperwork was sent through. The new deadline is now set for Dec. 1.

Already hard-hit drivers are irate about the inspection glitch. “There are some days since Sept. 11 when I lose money working—it is actually cheaper to stay home,” says Wonder Cab Association driver Bashir Ishaq. “And we have to handle failing inspections for no reason, too?”

The safety-equipment flap is the latest fiasco that the Taxicab Commission has faced this year. The testing of new drivers was abandoned for several months because of poor maintenance of computer facilities (“Hell on Wheels,” 8/24). A trial balloon floated by city officials to reorganize the city’s taxicab industry through changes to the fare structure (switching from the present zone system to meters), introducing taxi medallions, and imposing a citywide moratorium on new cabs met with widespread discontent among drivers, including the threat of a taxi strike.

Seegars says that the latest incident is further proof of the Taxicab Commission chair’s shortcomings. “What does [Lee Williams] do, if he is not doing his job?” says Seegars. “The circus is in town, and all the clowns are here.” She says that the lawsuit is the only way to compel the city to cough up the money it promised to cabbies.

Commissioner Williams did not return calls from the Washington City Paper about the lawsuit or the inspection snafu, but one city official did comment on the record about the latest imbroglio.

Causton Toney, the city’s director of legislation and policy at the Office of Economic Development, characterizes the DMV situation as a misunderstanding. He argues that the new deadline makes the loan-funding problems irrelevant, adding that the commission has found a company to install one of the safety options available to drivers—the safety light—for only $125. (The costs of the other two options—the camera and the partition—are $1,000 and $600, respectively.)

“The drivers have additional time to work that out now with the extension until December and the option for the safety light, it being a price most cabdrivers can afford,” says Toney. “My answer to you at the moment [regarding the unavailability of the revolving loan fund] is that it’s moot.” CP