Dozens of D.C. taxi drivers gathered in front of City Hall on Wednesday to angrily protest a bill that would introduce a medallion licensing system in the District.
With shouts of "Shame on you" and "Kill the bill," the drivers accused the D.C. Council's bill sponsors of backroom deals that discriminate against out-of-District residents and could allow a large company to monopolize the taxi industry.
Council member Marion Barry, a co-sponsor of the bill, had tried to quell the crowd outside, encouraging them to come to meetings on the bill.
"Many of you are not from America," he was quoted as saying by WTOP Radio (FM 103.5). "We do things differently here."
Under a medallion system, a government agency issues cab owners the medallions, which are affixed to the cabs as proof that they are licensed and allow them to pick up passengers.
The bill lays out a graded system that gives preference to drivers who live in the District, before doling medallions out to drivers based on longevity and compliance with D.C. tax laws. Five medallion classes also consider whether the cabs operate in an underserved area — described as wards 7 and 8 and parts of Ward 5 — and if they meet low-emission standards.
According to the bill, medallions will cost anywhere from $125 to $5,000 for individual drivers, based on the medallion class and driver's length of time in the District.
Larry Frankel, chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers, said the "most absurdly written bill" would realistically cut the number of taxi drivers in half, by offering only 4,000 medallions in classes one through four to about 8,000 taxi drivers. He said similar systems have led to monopolization in other large U.S. cities.
City taxicab drivers have long feared the implementation of a medallion system in the District, predicting it was inevitable after former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2007 announced he would abolish the city's idiosyncratic zone system for collecting fares.
In 2009, council member Jim Graham introduced a bill that would limit the number of total taxicabs in the District by issuing medallions to a select number of operators and give preference to low-emissions vehicles. Mr. Graham's former chief of staff, Ted Loza, was charged in September 2009 with soliciting bribes from persons who could benefit from that legislation.
Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat and the current bill's sponsor, defended the legislation inside the John A. Wilson Building at Mayor Vincent C. Gray's weekly press conference. He said the bill was based on conversations with individual drivers in the District, or "the smaller guys," and not lobbyists.
He said drivers should consider the cost of the medallion as an investment, much as they would improve their business through repairs.
But it was John Ray, a former D.C. Council member and attorney, who took the brunt of criticism from the crowd.
Mr. Ray, who said he represents a coalition of D.C. cabdrivers in support of the bill, heard chants of "coward" and "liar."
"If that's the way you feel, then come down to the city council and tell them that," he said.
He downplayed concerns that a single company would own all D.C. taxis in the future. But, he said, it would not be surprising to see several companies dominate the market years down the road, simply because companies will make better offers to individual drivers looking to sell their medallion for a profit.
"Ray Charles can see who they're going to sell it to," he said.
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