- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

A new law allowing only D.C. residents and businesses to register vehicles in the District has yet to be enforced because it could take up to 80 percent of the city’s roughly 6,000 taxicabs off the streets.

Most taxis are operated by drivers who live in Maryland and Virginia, so officials are worried that enforcing the law would strand thousands of commuters and tourists.

Another concern is a compromise the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles has made with out-of-state taxi drivers that allows them to continue operating in the District for the life of their vehicle.

The deal, which was never approved by the D.C. Council, has had the unintended consequence of leaving older, possibly unsafe vehicles on streets long after they otherwise would have been replaced, officials say.

The issue has been simmering since the law was passed in March 2006 and resurfaced earlier this month at a D.C. Council hearing.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, who oversees the D.C. Taxicab Commission, said the compromise “encourages people to hang onto vehicles even though they’re falling apart.”

Mr. Graham has introduced a bill that would allow taxicab drivers to replace their vehicles and continue to be eligible to operate in the District.

He called the current arrangement “an unworkable law on the books.”

“We don’t want to wreck the taxicab industry of the District of Columbia,” he said. “We have to come to a legal remedy.”

Lucinda Babers, acting director of the DMV, said the agency has some concerns about Mr. Graham’s legislation and that the taxicab industry wants to “continue the status quo.”

“I can’t blame them,” she said at the hearing. “It’s a sweetheart deal.”

Miss Babers also said taxicab drivers can still operate in the District if they apply for special certification from the city’s taxicab commission. They also can become part of an existing business in the District, she said.

However, critics say that alternative has led to an increase in the number of taxicab companies in the District, as out-of-state drivers start District-based ones to get a D.C. registration.

“We’re not getting any new vehicles on the streets,” said Doreen E. Thompson, interim chairwoman of the city’s taxicab commission. “It’s causing an enforcement nightmare for us as a commission.”

Several taxicab groups are backing Mr. Graham’s proposed legislation.

“It is a major step in righting a wrong,” said Nathaniel Price, of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association. “There are no other major cities where owner-operators are forced to live in the boundaries in which they operate their cabs.”

Other concerns are that the DMV’s compromise essentially delayed enforcing a law and that the lack of council approval and regulatory reviews appear to violate the law.

“I have never seen one of our laws suspended in such a casual manner as this,” Mr. Graham said.

But Miss Babers said the DMV delayed enforcing the law because officials knew it would have a big impact on the taxicab industry.

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