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Court ruling idles new D.C. taxi meters

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 3, 2012

A decision by a judge on the D.C. Contract Appeals Board has put on ice the District's highly touted plans to install "smart meters" in its taxicabs and prompted the city's "Mayor for Life" to gloat that he warned officials to delay the gadgets, which are intended to improve the city's fleet.

The meters allow riders to pay by credit card and watch TV programming during their rides. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Taxicab Commission recently demonstrated the technology in front of reporters and city officials at a shop on Benning Road Northeast. Although officials laid out a timeline to install about 6,500 meters before the end of the year, the board was mulling protests aimed at halting the $35 million smart-meter contract with Verifone Systems Inc.

Late Friday, an administrative judge for the board said the city must stop installations until the board issues a final ruling — expected by mid-October — on the protests filed by a pair of losing bidders, Creative Mobile Technologies LLC and RideCharge Inc.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, used a legislative hold to prevent officials from using city funds to cover installation costs instead of forcing taxi drivers to pick up the tab. He cited the appeals process and his need to "obtain information" to make sure city residents conducted the installation work. The former mayor's maneuver, known as a disapproval resolution, had Mr. Gray scratching his head because Mr. Barry led efforts to make sure taxi drivers did not have to pay installation costs.

Mr. Barry declared himself the winner of the standoff in a Saturday night press release that boasted of his "refusal to violate the law."

"I stand on the right side of the law and in the best interests of our taxi drivers," he said. "It was irresponsible to proceed. This was never an emergency. I also wanted to ensure that the city wouldn't be financially liable if the ruling is not in the District's favor."

Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro responded Monday by noting that the contract appeals board has not weighed the merits of the Verifone contract.

"We really think this is a slight bump in the road as we proceed with the contract," he said.

A. Scott Bolden, a D.C. lawyer who is representing protesting bidder Creative Mobile, said the contract appeal decision by Administrative Judge Monica Parchment "just makes good procurement sense, if anything." He had argued that if the city did not cease its rollout of Verifone smart meters, it would be difficult to "get the horse back in the barn."

"I think her decision supports that concern," he said Monday.

Mr. Gray and Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron M. Linton have said that they pushed forward with their taxi reforms because the contract went through a legitimate process and, until Friday, had not received an order to stop.

The board's ruling should push back the city's plan to install the smart meters by the end of November, but the severity of the delay depends on when the board completes its review of the protests.

"We don't have dates yet," Mr. Ribeiro said.

Mr. Gray has made taxicab reform a signature effort of his administration. Besides implementing smart meters, the District is phasing out old taxis, increasing the number of wheelchair-accessible cabs and establishing a uniform color scheme.

Many taxi drivers have protested Mr. Gray's reforms as a costly mandate that foists government decisions on them instead of letting them run their small businesses. Drivers who already have credit card readers have argued that they should be allowed to choose their vendors.

Mr. Gray said the city has tried to help drivers by raising fares, lifting the $19 cap on trips and allowing a surcharge that helps offset the price of fuel. He said credit card readers could help prevent robberies because the drivers would not be traveling with large amounts of cash.

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