Mayor Vincent C. Gray said the city has taken a major step toward modernization of the taxicab industry with an agreement that will lead to the installation of what is called a smart meter system.
The system, Gray said, will allow customers to pay by credit card, and has driver verification, a safety-response system for both driver and passenger, Internet access, GPS tracking and other advanced features.
"We've made another major step in bringing the taxicab system into the 21st century," said Gray during a Thursday morning press conference at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest. "This moves us from the middle of the pack and will make Washington's taxicabs among the most advanced taxi fleets in the country."
"... I'm absolutely delighted that we've reached this stage," the mayor said during the July 5 press conference.
The proposed five-year, $35 million contract is with VeriFone Systems, Inc., a San Jose, California-based company that will install, maintain and operate the meters.
Drivers will pay what Gray calls a "modest" one-time installation fee of between $300 and $500. When asked if cabbies had to have that money upfront, Gray deferred to Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton who said city officials would be willing to work with cab drivers if they needed to pay the fee in installments. Those taxicabs that already have compatible meters will not need to be retrofitted. He said he hoped to have the new meters installed in the estimated 7,000 taxicabs by the end of the year.
VeriFone Vice President for Taxi Services Amos Tamam said he was pleased his company was able to outbid seven other competitors to get this contract.
"We're very proud that the District has selected VeriFone to provide an integrated platform that represents state-of-the-art secure payment and digital content delivery and will provide a better experience for riders," Tamam said.
He offered a demonstration of the system to members of the media, which included voice-guided navigation for drivers to any location in the Northeast U.S., a payment screen that will cut the transaction time to about five seconds, and a television monitor that will show headlines and programming from NBC stations.
"It will offer primetime content, the weather and headlines expanded to give passengers more information," said Tamam of the exclusive agreement VeriFone has signed with NBC.
An added benefit of the proposal, Gray said, is that the 50 cent-per-ride surcharge the city plans to charge customers will pay installation costs for the meters and also finance the operating costs of the commission through a trust fund.
"The fund will be fueled by the surcharge," said Gray. "In 2013, it will also pay the commission's $2.4 million budget. That will mean several million dollars in savings for the city."
Gray, 69, encouraged members of the D.C. Council to move quickly to approve the contract that he said would benefit the riding public, the drivers and the public at large.
But while Gray focused on this development being consummation of a promise he made earlier in his tenure, not all cab drivers are comfortable with the new plan.
"I have been a taxi driver for seven years and I already have that system in my car," said Negede Abebe after the press conference. "We're not against technology but why is the government controlling this information in real time? What we're opposing is the 'Big Brother' aspect where they monitor my passenger and me," he said.
Abebe was referring to one of the system's new features – a tracking and monitoring device which will be activated whenever the cabbie picks up a new fare.
"They should let that information be stored and monitored by taxi companies and if the city needs that information for legislative purposes, for example, then the taxi companies could provide it."
He said he fears that this feature might drive customers away to other modes of transportation.
One of his compatriots agreed.
"It is an invasion of privacy," said Haimanot Bizuayehu. "Passengers know their movements are being tracked and that their credit card information is kept and can be monitored. My number one concern is scaring customers away ... And I don't know why the city forced us to go with one vendor. Our costs may have been lower if we were allowed to shop around."
Bizuayehu, who has been driving a cab for 17 years, said the city's executive branch has moved ahead of the legislative branch, in effect, putting the cart before the horse. He also said he believes maintenance issues surrounding repair of the meters will be a nightmare.
"We can go to a shop now and get a meter fixed but how many shops will VeriFone have?" he asked.
Gray said he would never have agreed to a hodgepodge of companies installing the meters because that would have been chaotic and unproductive.
"To have people shopping around, waiting, and maybe not installing the meters at all would have been a mess," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm comfortable with this process."
Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said she was pleased with the latest developments.
"D.C. taxis and taxi drivers are our public face to millions of visitors every year," said Cheh, chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, in an earlier interview. "They are often the first impression people have of our city and its services. We want that service to be courteous, efficient and safe, while allowing drivers to earn a proper income and take pride in their work."
She introduced the legislation that is the basis of the modernization effort. Their desire, she has said, besides modernizing the District's taxicab fleet, is to improve safety standards, create a more robust regulatory structure for taxicabs and install card readers in every cab so that riders can pay fares using credit or debit cards.
Cheh and Gray described the smart meters as one of several steps to effect much-needed change in the industry. This includes restructuring the fare systems of cabs in the District, while addressing the varied concerns of passengers, taxi drivers and the city's hospitality industry.
"We will have an industry that works for D.C., is fair to drivers and is a wonderful experience for people traveling around the city," said Cheh, 61.
But city officials are not without their detractors who are fearful that independent drivers will be forced out, that a medallion system may be introduced or that over-regulation will deny drivers the ability to make a decent living. And officials have had to overcome a relationship fraught with distrust and suspicion.
Drivers have also spoken of being isolated and excluded from the decision-making that has characterized the modernization process and they have expressed a desire to have a greater hand in helping upgrade their industry.
"I have met with drivers many times. I support independent drivers. I thought I'd settled it with them," Cheh said. "I'm not in favor of medallions, neither is many on the Council. The last roll showed that. We have no intention of going in that direction."
"I was never in favor of medallions," he reiterated.
At the end of the day, Linton said, this is a win-win situation.
"I think this project will serve the public and drivers very well, particularly for the 50 percent who come to the city," he said.