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D.C. takes steps to make cabs more rider-friendly

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2012

The District has selected Verifone Systems to install credit card readers, GPS tracking and news programming in the city's taxicabs as part of promised reforms to make the system as rider-friendly as those in cities like New York, officials said Thursday.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray transmitted the $34.9 million contract to the D.C. Council for lawmakers' approval.
"It's something that we promised we would do, and it's something we've delivered on," Mr. Gray said.

The deal is part of a broad package of reforms that Mr. Gray and council members have debated for months and which has touched off heated protests among taxi drivers who think their leaders are burdening them with extra costs and intruding on their private businesses.

Mr. Gray said the city will in due time introduce a uniform color scheme to replace the patchwork of exterior designs used by individual cab companies that do business in the District. The mayor also promised a "substantial increase" in the number of wheelchair-accessible cabs.

Taxicab legislation that sets a timeline for technological improvements, increases driver training and promotes wheelchair-accessible and fuel-efficient fleets is up for a final approval by the council Tuesday.

"I anticipate that the council will adopt the legislation," said council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat who introduced the bill.

Under the Verifone contract announced Thursday, riders will be able to use any credit card to pay their cabdrivers instead of relying on cash and they will be able to summon help with a "safety" button in the cab. Riders will also be able to view NBC news, weather and sports programming on TV screens.

Officials said the city will lease the system for five years from Verifone, which bested seven other bidders for the contract.

Company executives demonstrated the equipment during a press event Thursday in the John A. Wilson Building, swiping a credit card and punching in selections on a touch-screen to show off the technology.

Amos Tamam, a senior vice president for Verifone, said the average cash transaction takes 45 seconds. Their card-payment system cuts that down to an average of 5 seconds, he said.

The costs associated with installing the system and D.C. Taxicab Commission operations will be covered by a 50-cents-per-ride surcharge in lieu of tax revenue, which officials touted as a way to save $4 million in the general fund and force out-of-District riders to pay their share of administrative costs.

Ron M. Linton, chairman of the city's taxicab commission, said the 50-cent surcharge will be reviewed each year.

Cabdrivers must pay up to $500 for a one-time installation fee. If drivers cannot pay it upfront, "we'll work that out with them," Mr. Linton said.

But many cabdrivers are disgusted with pending legislation and plan to protest at Freedom Plaza ahead of Tuesday's council vote, said Larry Frankel, chairman of the Dominion of Cab Drivers.

Mr. Frankel said about one-third of the city's cabdrivers accept credit cards and no one is going to "argue against modernization." His own cab has a card reader and WiFi access.

"I like all those things," he said. "What I don't like is the government telling me where to buy it, how to buy it and what it's going to cost."

In protests in front of city hall earlier this week, some drivers held signs that equated proposed tracking systems to a covert spy program by the government.

Mr. Linton said a cab will only be tracked when its meter is on. In other words, drivers must be taking a passenger somewhere and will not be tracked when they are off-duty, cruising or on their way to picking someone up.

Mr. Gray said the GPS tracking will provide insight into popular cab routes and whether the industry is serving the entire District.

"I think it'll give us a lot of data," he said. "There are people who complain frequently that cabs don't go into certain areas of the city."

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