- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2012

Visitors to New York City see a golden horde hurtling down Broadway, passengers in Boston wheel around the harbor in snowy white cars and London’s black cabs are as iconic as Big Ben.

But taxi companies in the U.S. capital offer a mixed bag of colors and amenities, a mixed bag the District is trying to streamline through vehicle-for-hire reforms that will change everything from curbside aesthetics to the debut of a credit card-reader in every cab.

“How people are treated when they get into a taxicab oftentimes determines how they feel about your city,” D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Monday.

Mr. Gray is asking the public to weigh in on nine proposed color schemes for cabs in the nation’s capital, one of which will be chosen in February to give the city’s 6,500-vehicle fleet a uniform look. As the most attention-grabbing aspect of the city’s taxi reforms, the new color scheme has generated chatter and speculation since the start of the year.

The proposed patterns range from a green-and-yellow number that would blend in on leafy streets to a red, blue and gray design that fits in nicely with the patriotic colors of the Washington Capitals and Wizards who play in the downtown arena where four of the designs will be on display for a month. Mr. Gray said he would like to see a design that jells with the city’s Metro and Circulator buses and its proposed streetcar system — in other words, something with red in it.

The quartet of vehicles at the Verizon Center will move to Union Station to catch the eyes of visitors who flood into the city for the presidential inauguration on Jan. 21. From there, they will gain exposure in February during the Washington Auto Show at the city’s convention center.

The vehicles inside the arena lobby are each decked out in layers of color that slope diagonally down the side of the car, adding a bit more pizazz than a solid color scheme. Mr. Gray said it was “just a group decision to say, ‘Let’s do something really — really funky.’”

The effort stems from a taxi modernization bill the D.C. Council passed this year as part of Mr. Gray’s desire to make taxicab reform a signature effort of his administration. Besides a new color scheme, the District is phasing out old taxis, increasing the number of wheelchair-accessible cabs and rolling out smart meters that would allow riders to pay by credit card and watch TV during their rides.

Overall, the reforms have been debated for months and touched off heated protests among taxi drivers, who think their leaders are burdening them with extra costs and intruding on their private businesses.

D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ron Linton said drivers in the District will be responsible for painting costs after the commission chooses a color early next year. However, he said, drivers only have to adopt the uniform color scheme when they acquire a new vehicle — either on their own or as part of a new law that is phasing out cabs that are more than 7 years old — so a transformation across the city may take several years.

Mr. Linton refuted suggestions that the drivers will be overburdened, noting that they would shell out money anyway to paint their cabs in company colors after they arrive in factory paint.

Some drivers might be compelled to repaint their cabs voluntarily if the new color scheme bears fruit for drivers on the front end of the initiative.

“They start telling the other cab drivers how much better they’re doing,” Mr. Linton said. “The attitudes seem to change, and a lot more start doing it.”

Mr. Linton cited the increasing use of credit card-readers as proof of the trend, although the installation of uniform meters in the city’s fleet has been an uphill battle.

Mr. Gray kicked off the smart-meter portion of his reforms in July by announcing a $35 million contract with Verifone Systems Inc. to install the equipment in every cab. The taxicab commission hoped to install the meters by Inauguration Day, but the project is on hold after the D.C. Contract Appeals Board ruled the city did not properly vet the bids for the contract. One of the city’s procurement officers was fired because of the flawed process.

D.C. lawmakers also passed a law that sets parameters around sedan-on-demand services such as Uber, which allow riders to order up a ride with their smart phones.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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