Gandhi warns D.C. can't afford taxi reform plan

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder

A top D.C. lawmaker says a proposed overhaul of the District's taxicab industry -- funded largely by a new 50-cent surcharge -- will move forward, even though the city's chief financial officer says Washington can't afford the plan.

The D.C. Council has spent months hammering out details on a bill that would create the surcharge, clear the way for the hiring of more hack inspectors and require drivers to install panic buttons, paint their cars the same color and accept credit cards.

Among other provisions, the measure would also streamline the D.C. Taxicab Commission's operations and permit regulators to establish taxi license quotas.

But Natwar Gandhi, the District's CFO, says the city can't pay for the plan under Gray's 2013 budget as the mayor submitted it.

"Funds are not sufficient," Gandhi wrote in a fiscal impact statement that said the city would need to spend about $670,000 next year to implement the plan.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, the chairwoman of the council's transportation committee, said Gandhi's math was too pessimistic about the fate and subsequent impact of the surcharge.

"Until the surcharge is actually adopted by the commission, until it's put in place, until there are collections, he's taking this extremely conservative approach," Cheh said. "Our calculations show the commission netting something like $10 million. ... When the dust settles, we will have a taxi bill, and we will have a good source of money to fund the changes."

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the mayor, said he could not comment on Gandhi's ruling, but he said Gray was committed to overhauling the city's cab industry.

"The mayor is very serious about it," Ribeiro said. "He's been talking constantly about bringing the taxicab system into the 21st century. "But modernization, Gandhi said, could carry a hefty price tag for District taxpayers.

The proposal lawmakers are considering would cost $3.2 million over four years, most of that from increasing the size of the taxi commission's staff. Gandhi estimated that the costs of adding the equivalent of nine full-time employees would be about $3.1 million.

The changes wouldn't be cheap for cab drivers, either, and dozens of cabbies have flocked to public hearings to protest the plan. The full D.C. Council must still approve the plan. Gray, who joined Cheh in crafting the measure, would be expected to sign it into law.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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Alan Blinder

Staff Reporter, D.C. City Hall
The Washington Examiner