D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said Wednesday that he expects credit card machines and GPS technology to appear in all District taxicabs within three months, even as an appeals board weighs protests that could stop the $35 million project.
"The smart meter system is a major upgrade for our taxicab system here and will bring our fleet into the 21st century," Gray said.
Along with mapping and credit card devices, the smart meters allow passengers to watch television programming and include panic buttons for drivers and riders.
Passengers will maintain the smart meters by paying a surcharge of 50 cents a ride. The city was planning to fund the installation costs, which run as much as $500 per vehicle.
For now, though, drivers will have to pay the tab because of a squabble between Gray and Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry.
After the city named VeriFone as the winner of the contract in July, two losing bidders protested the deal. The city's Contract Appeals Board has not ruled on the protests, prompting Barry to use a parliamentary tactic to delay the city's ability to pay for the installations.
Barry said it would be illegal for the city to move ahead with the meters ahead of the appeals panel's decision, but Gray dismissed the lawmaker's accusation.
"I don't consider this to be a legitimate hold," Gray said. "We've followed the law from the very beginning."
Barry's concerns about the broader deal, though, are stalling the city's efforts to pick up the costs of installations, a plan Gray proposed and Barry cheered last month.
But Barry said Gray "is determined to make taxi drivers pay for the installation," an allegation that prompted an unusually harsh response from the sitting mayor toward a predecessor.
Describing Barry's insinuation as "absolutely ludicrous," Gray said he never developed a backroom deal to force drivers to pay after the city promised to take care of the costs.
"We have no backroom, frontroom, sideroom, sidewalk or alley plan of any kind to do anything," Gray said. "We said we would pay the drivers, and if Mr. Barry would lift his resolution of disapproval, this would be taken care of."
A spokeswoman for Barry said the councilman stood by the statement he issued late Tuesday.
"It's irresponsible to proceed," Barry said then. "This is not an emergency. Following the law and allowing the process to play out is what's most important."
The appeals board's ruling is expected by Aug. 31.
Stanley Tapscott, a longtime driver who is also a member of the D.C. Taxi Commission, said the spat was frustrating cabbies.
"There is quite a bit of unrest," Tapscott said.