The Daily Hustle: 5/25/10

Cab compromise driven to council

The Daily Hustle: 5/25/10
Photo courtesy arvindgrover/Creative Commons

City Council meets this week, and among the dozens of items on their agenda are several related to taxis. Up for third and final reading are franchise renewals for Austin’s two largest cab franchises – Yellow Cab, the biggest franchise with 400-plus permits, and Austin Cab. And they've kept the controversy meter running.

On both first and second reading, the permit renewals have been the source of much discussion. Galvanized by a report from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid that argued cabbies suffer from low wages and abysmal working conditions, council has debated the question of whether council can make any substantive changes to the franchises once the agreements are approved, or whether they’ll have to wait five years until the permits expire.

Bill Spelman, the lone holdout against approval, has consistently raised these issues, but it looks like he may have forged a compromise that would allow for unanimous permit approval while keeping an eye on improvements at the franchises. He is sponsoring, along with Laura Morrison and Chris Riley, Item 55, which directs the City Manager to partner with an existing Urban Transportation Commission taxi group “to develop recommendations on taxicab key performance indicators, fees charged to taxicab drivers by franchises, and a revised methodology for authorizing franchise agreements.” And now he’s confident changes can be made once the franchises are passed.

“My primary concern,” says Spelman, “is if we pass the ordinance to continue those franchises for five years without making any changes at all, will we be able to make any corrections in the middle of that five year franchise agreement, for the purposes of improving conditions for customers, for drivers? The reason I voted no first two readings was because it wasn't clear to me we could. I’m now getting advice from legal department that says within some limits we can. In particular, if we wanted to require performance measures from franchise holders, we could pass an ordinance requiring it. “

Although the fees and performance indicators will have to be hammered out, Spelman says he’s looking to ensure franchises charge fair permit/terminal fees.

“Another class of issues has to do with fees the franchise holders are charging the cabdrivers. It turns out we have legal advice now that we can regulate, at least, changes in those terminal fees. For example, we could limit the terminal fees so that the franchise holder would not be soaking up the entire balance of an increase in rates  …  We can prevent that from happening.” However, it will take time to get the language tight enough, he says. “They can call it whatever they want to. So if we say were gonna cap the terminal fees, well, then they say, 'OK, our terminal fees are now zero, but we have created an all new fee,' or found a new way of charging cab drivers. So its a little bit of work of finding out the right way to do that [cap terminal fees].”

Setting performance indicators will also be somewhat difficult, as ascertaining the most important one – the time between calling a cab and its arrival – is hampered by the fact not all of Austin’s three franchises utilize computerized dispatch. But, he hopes Austin’s measures can emulate the work done in Los Angeles to award and monitor cab franchises based on performance and merit – as a boon not only to customers, but drivers.

“Had I not gotten the opinion for the legal staff that we could pass an ordinance that would have an effect on the franchises and the franchise agreements, I’d be very concerned. Because I now know we have that authority, I’m less concerned about the franchise agreements, and more concerned that we actually get the ball rolling, identify some performance measures, identify a sensible regulation of the terminal fees and get that started.”

What the hell else is happening?

On the city calendar: Council’s Audit and Finance Committee is meeting this morning in the Board and Commission room at City Hall, 310 W. Second, 9am. Lots of projected budget talk on the agenda.

The Planning Commission meets in council chambers at 6pm. Along with the rezonings and amendments is discussion and action on the Downtown Density Bonus Plan.

The Parks and Recreation Board takes over the B&C room at 6pm. They’re scheduled to make recommendations on the Waller Creek Tunnel Draft Master Plan and the controversial “cancer park” proposed Downtown.

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