Credit: Darrow Montgomery

First, it was credit card readers. Then, it was Uber. And today, it was the final meeting of the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

Local cabbies say they can’t catch a break.

On Thursday, at DCTC’s office, a handful of drivers expressed consternation towards the rebranding of the commission as the “Department of For-Hire Vehicles”—a move they say adds insult to injury for an industry disrupted by rideshare apps.

D.C. lawmakers approved legislation in May that effectively reorganized the city’s transportation agencies, including the commission. Beyond the name change, however, DFHV will retain essentially the same structure and functions as DCTC now has, with the latter’s chairperson becoming the former’s director. This new, standalone agency will feature separate offices handling administration, policy, client services, legal compliance, and rule enforcement. The act also establishes an 11-member “For-Hire Vehicle Advisory Council,” which will consult the department on regulatory matters for taxicabs.

These seemingly mundane changes will take effect June 28. But some drivers describe the commission’s restructuring as an “insult,” allegedly designed to remove their input from policy decisions. Meanwhile, they add, companies like Uber and Lyft are able to get around regulations by identifying as platforms, though their drivers perform the same basic work.

“It’s just a sad day that the government decides to reverse itself by changing the commission into a department,” said Larry Frankel, chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers. “Our industry [is] being permanently stricken from the public record. I will be a cab driver forever in my heart, but as of today, I am no longer, and I will not come back into the industry.”

The advisory council will meet on a quarterly basis, “and more often as needed,” according to the act. Its members will consist of a person from DFHV, one from the District Department of Transportation, and “nine community representatives”: two D.C. residents who operate vehicles-for-hire; two company reps; two hospitality reps; and three frequent cab riders.

Still, a few public witnesses at DCTC’s Anacostia HQ lamented the purported demise of what they characterized as a “democratic” institution: one meant to solicit driver feedback on the nuts-and-bolts issues affecting their work. Some even wore green baseball caps and T-shirts bearing the logo: “Quality and good service for riders, economic justice for drivers.”

“The responsibilities of the renamed agency are fundamentally unchanged,” a DCTC spokesperson said before the meeting. A February report on the act by the D.C. Council’s transportation committee explained that the reorganization would “allow the [commission] to more effectively manage its various functions, shifting [to] a cleaner, more efficient, and transparent organizational structure.” It would also, the report argued, “reduce the appearance of ‘industry capture'”—an academic way of saying operators currently hold too much power in DCTC, which is supposed to serve the public. (City Desk has contacted Councilmember Mary Cheh—who chairs the committee—and will update this post if we hear back.)

Ernest Chrappah, DCTC’s chairperson, said he’s “encouraged” by the restructuring and the environment the new agency will operate in. In closing the meeting, other DCTC members reflected on the need to adapt. (“Change is the only constant,” one noted.)

But for Frankel, even though the department will look the same administratively, public input will become more “indirect.”

“We are being bankrupt, slowly,” he said. “Under the rules and regulations that we followed, it lost our profit. We cannot maintain driving a taxi; we could switch to another form of rideshare, but that’s where our pride, history comes into this.”

Update, June 29: Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, provided the following statement: “The commission is simply an outmoded mechanism for dealing with our modern for-hire transportation system. The agency model, required by the Transportation Reorganization Amendment Act, doesn’t change the regulatory powers, but provides clean lines of authority, greater efficiency, and makes the decisions about the industry more visible to the public.”