Councilmember Roger Berliner thinks taxi cab drivers "are among the most disempowered workers" in Montgomery County, a conclusion he reached after months of examining the taxi industry in light of new services such as Uber and Lyft.
Berliner and colleagues introduced a batch of bills last October meant to assuage some concerns from local taxi cab companies like North Bethesda-based Barwood. Barwood and others have complained that Uber and Lyft are allowed to operate without government restrictions, while the county heavily regulates the traditional taxi industry.
Berliner said he's spoken with Barwood and other taxi cab drivers who say they are forced to pay too much in vehicle rents, credit card fees and insurance costs back to the companies.
On Thursday, he wrote a memo to Montgomery County Department of Transportation Acting Director Al Roshdieh in which he asked for help in shaping a set of new rules to help taxi drivers pay less.
"On numerous occasions over the course of the last several months, I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of taxicab drivers who have described their contractual relationships with certain taxicab fleets operating in the County. I have been deeply affected and disturbed by what I have learned," Berliner wrote.
He attached a statement from a lawyer who represented taxi drivers in mediation with taxi cab companies last fall. The statement describes how most Barwood drivers pay $388.80 a week to lease or rent the vehicles from the company.
Attorney Jonathan Newman claimed drivers must also pay Barwood $115.20 a week to use the company's telephone and dispatch service. Drivers must pay another $140.70 a week for insurance coverage.
Put together, the three charges cost Barwood drivers $643.80 per week.
Berliner said he wants MCDOT's guidance on proposing a cap on how much a taxi cab company can charge a driver to lease one of its vehicles. D.C. taxi drivers pay only $30 per week for what Newman claimed was better insurance than what's offered by Montgomery cab companies.
Barwood drivers who own their own passenger vehicle licenses are charged only $30 per week to use the company's telephone and dispatch service.
"While we have aggressively regulated the color of taxis, the county has turned a totally blind eye to the relationship between the fleets to whom we granted monopoly access and the drivers who work for them," Berliner wrote. "Based on what I have heard and their public testimony, I have reluctantly concluded that our drivers, many of whom are African immigrants, are among the most disempowered workers in our county."
So far, Berliner and council members on the Transportation Committee have dealt with issues between companies such as Barwood and their new, unregulated competition. For example, the committee voted against a taxi company-suggested move to limit the amount of Uber vehicles that could be on Montgomery County roads at one time.
Berliner has promised the Feb. 27 worksession will deal more with the issues of the county's taxi cab drivers.
He also pitched adding a 10-cent surcharge to all rides from Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. That money would then go to the taxi cab drivers who operate vehicles that are accessible to wheelchair users and other disabled residents.
A Berliner aide said the specific mechanism for doling out the money would need to be determined with the help of MCDOT.
"Having heard stories of TNC (and taxicab) drivers mistreating guide dogs, for example, I believe that language in the legislation should be strengthened to guarantee that TNCs are not discriminating against disabled residents and are adequately trained to respond to their needs," Berliner said. "Since traditional UberX or Lyft vehicles are usually not able to accommodate wheelchair-bound individuals, I believe that more formal requirements are needed to properly guarantee those individuals access to reliable transportation."