Gotham Gazette

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Mayor to Propose Classier Black Cabs with Pick-Up Privileges

black cab
Photo by mandiberg
Currently so-called black cabs or gypsy cabs cannot pick up passengers who hail them on the street. A proposal by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seeks to change that.

Traveling in the back of elusive black cabs in the outer boroughs could become a lot more legitimate.

In his State of the City speech on Staten Island today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to call for a new class of black cab, better known as livery or gypsy cabs, which will be allowed to pick up passengers hailing on the street in the outer boroughs for the first time. In exchange, Bloomberg will require these livery cabs to have meters, GPS systems and a uniform color or marking, according to a memo on the proposal provided by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

“And why shouldn’t someone in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Staten Island be able to hail a legal cab on the street?" Bloomberg is expected to ask today, according to an excerpt of the speech. Currently, passengers in the outer boroughs must call a livery or black car in advance to arrange a ride. Jumping in one on the street is illegal.

"This year, we’ll establish a new category of livery cars that can make on-street pickups outside of Manhattan -- just like yellow cabs do," the mayor will say. "It will give New Yorkers in all five boroughs another safe, reliable and convenient option for getting around. Because whether you’re standing on 42nd Street in Manhattan, or 42nd Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, or 42nd Street in Sunnyside, Queens, you ought to be able to hail a cab."

Hizzoner will likely have an uphill battle. Already industry officials are pumping the brakes. Representatives of yellow cabs fear livery cabs could steal their fares, while livery cab companies are wary of the new regulations.

"Legalizing an illegal activity because it's been done for so long will immediately cut into fares, especially during the rush hours when yellow cab drivers who live in the outer boroughs pick up fares at the beginning or end of their shifts," said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union that represents yellow cab drivers. "As liveries bring more riders into Manhattan, what guarantee do we have that the city will stop the illegal activities in Manhattan or the airports? Already, the city has turned a blind eye on such activity throughout Manhattan and the airports, which cuts deep into taxi driver incomes. This is a slippery slope with long-term implications."

Under the proposal, the new livery cab will still be banned from picking up fares in Manhattan and at the city's airports.

The Details of Legit Liveries

According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the city has nearly 38,000 "for hire" vehicles in the outer boroughs, including black cars, licensed liveries and limousines. Of that, between 26,000 and 27,000 are licensed livery cabs. In 2010, the commission issued 2,854 illegal hail summonses.

Under the mayor's plan, which has not been completely spelled out yet, passengers in the outer boroughs could still use any of those services. All they have to do is pick up the phone.

The proposal, which is cast as a sustainability initiative to get cars off of the streets, would create an additional class of vehicle. Cars already licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission could opt to join, but they would have to abide by the criteria, including the meter.

These new livery cabs would have to have credit card readers (now used in 40 percent of rides in yellow cabs). By requiring clearly marked cars, the proposed program would increase passenger and driver safety, according to the memo. It would also ensure passengers -- especially tourists -- get charged a fair fare.

Some livery companies, though, aren't buying it.

Anthony Amaro, an assistant manager at Arecibo Car Service in Park Slope, said it's safer and more economical for outer borough residents to call for his black cars.

"If you put in meters, it's basically going to be another yellow cab," said Amaro. His service provides outer borough residents a cheaper alternative, Amaro said. Arecibo charges a $16 flat rate from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan. When asked if the service would support the program, Amaro said: "I don’t think so."

The preliminary proposal does not spell out whether the fare structure would be the same as a yellow cab. That would be established by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, according to the memo.

There has been no discussion of limiting the number of vehicles in the program, a TLC official said. An official also said these licenses would not be used in the same way as taxi medallions, which are expensive and limit the number of yellow cabs on the street.

To move forward, the proposal will have to have City Council approval.

In a statement yesterday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said: "We look forward to the mayor's speech and look forward to closely examining this proposal."

The council's Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca gave a similar response.

“He is proposing a transformation of the taxi industry, and I think this is a proposal that has to be looked at carefully," said Vacca. "Is the medallion as valuable as it once was?" he asked. "From the livery cab industry perspective, they are going to say, 'Our business is going to decline if all you have to do is go out on Queens Boulevard and hail a cab.'"

The city points out that the practice of illegal hailing black cabs is already rampant. Critics of the plan counter that that doesn't mean the city should make the practice legal.

Doing so would devalue the yellow cab medallion, said Ethan Gerber, the executive director of the Greater New York Taxi Association, which represents a coalition of taxi owners. "It ruins the credibility of the city going forward," said Gerber. "If the TLC would simply enforce its own rules, the problem would go away."

The proposal is one aspect of the mayor's annual address this afternoon at the St. George Theater. Yesterday, the mayor was mum on what else he might propose.

"But if you come," he said to reporters on the speech, "I’d be happy to have you."

Cuomo No-Tax Pledge Could Bring More Transit Cuts

Photo by Laurent

They went down the line -- abolish it, audit it, let the public elect its leaders, put the governor in charge. One-by-one, each gubernatorial candidate castigated the Metropolitan Transit Authority during the New York gubernatorial candidates' debate on Oct. 18.

Almost lost in the shuffle of platitudes and rehearsed one-liners -- "The only difference between the MTA and my former escort agency," quipped former madam Kristin Davis, "is that my agency delivered on-time and reliable service" -- was the fact that, in his comments, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo refused to show his plan for the transportation agency.

"It's been unclear what Cuomo's policy priorities are," said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City transportation advocacy group. "It's hard to know if that means that the door is open and he's willing to entertain ideas. He hasn't ascribed to specific beliefs nor has he said no to anything in particular."

But with the MTA facing ruinous finances, rising fares, reduced service and an unfunded future, the governor will have to take action sooner rather than later. The general consensus in the transit advocacy community is that trimming the fat and implementing more efficient business practices can only do so much to cut expenses.

andrew cuomo

"Cuomo unequivocally said he wasn't going look to raise revenue for the MTA, that the MTA was going to have to rely on cost cutting and efficiencies," said John Petro, an urban affairs policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, adding, "I just hope that he has a more comprehensive plan than that."

The Gaping Hole

Despite a series of cost cutting measures and fare hikes, the MTA's budget crunch shows no signs of abating. A recent article reported that a series of moves aimed at bringing in more revenue will fall some $400 million short of what was anticipated. As the agency prepares to adopt an $11.7 billion operating budget , other problems loom, including rising pensions, employee heath care and debt service costs.

Petro, who profiled the decline in a 2009 report titled Solving the MTA Budget Crisis: A Capital Investment Strategy, estimates that the MTA will need to find an extra $1.3 billion annually "just to make sure the transportation system doesn't fall apart," not to mention the extra money needed to even consider expansion and modernization.

The MTA has offered a comprehensive capital program for 2010-2014 that covers all the bases, including needed upkeep as well as expansion projects to keep the MTA on par with other top-notch public transit systems. The price tag: $26.3 billion. Of that, it's estimated that funding will fall roughly $10 billion short over the final three years of the plan.

The plan does not lay out where the funds might come from.

"How the MTA ought to be funded is a question for the legislature," said Aaron Donovan, spokesperson for the MTA. "Our role is simply to make clear the needs that we face and to explain our efforts to overhaul the way the MTA does business."

The legislature, though, has been slow to provide any answers.

"I think the issues involving mass transit are immediate," said State Sen. Jose M. Serrano, whose district spans parts of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. "I'm not saying I know what the answer is, though. I don't know if increasing streams of revenue is the answer."

The seven gubernatorial candidates offered various answers -- a restructuring of MTA management, increased tolls, raised taxes and fees on real estate developers, selling contracts to private companies, tax-free transit benefits for employers and lower cost transit options. Cuomo has not shown a preference for any of these plans.

Making Drivers Pay

Cuomo has, though, been adamant about not increasing any taxes.

"I have a feeling that for the first couple of years, the main agenda for the governor will be how do we turn this government around? How do we close the deficit?" Serrano said. "And I believe him when he says he's going to do it without increasing taxes."

That has transit advocates and others looking at alternative ways to raise money. One new form of revenue for the MTA is congestion pricing, which essentially charges people to drive into parts of Manhattan during business hours. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed it in 2008, the State Assembly failed to vote on it.

"It will be back," Budnick said. "No matter what financial crisis you want to look at -- the city the state or the MTA -- there’s a desperate need for new revenue sources."

Serrano thinks the legislature's perception of the bill as a rise in taxes might determine the fee's ultimate success or failure. Viewed as a new tax, congestion pricing would run counter to Cuomo's no new taxes stance. Serrano supports congestion pricing as well as levying tolls on certain bridges into Manhattan.

"I don’t know if it's viewed mainly as a revenue stream or mainly as a tax," Serrano said, adding that he would prefer "people view it more as a way to alleviate congestion in the city."

There are a few reasons to expect congestion pricing to factor into the MTA's future. Drivers commuting into the city benefit from having 5 million transit riders off the streets but do not contribute to public transit funding. Budnick calls them "the biggest free riders."

Jay Walder, the MTA's chairman and chief executive officer, oversaw the successful implementation of congestion pricing at his former post as finance director of Transport for London, which manages that city's subways, buses and commuter rails. Started in 2003, London’s congestion pricing reduced traffic by 20 percent in the city and raised 122 million pounds (roughly $183 million) in its second year. Walder avoided taking a stance on congestion pricing when he came to the MTA.

Petro estimates that, optimistically, congestion pricing could raise around $400 million a year. He warns against seeing it as a cure-all solution -- "It's vital … but we need to explore other options."

As an alternative, in 2008, Richard Ravitch, now the outgoing lieutenant governor, recommended the state put tolls on the free East River and Harlem River bridges to raise money for transit. That also failed to make it through the legislature.

At the time Ravitch released a report on the state of New York State's transportation infrastructure, which bluntly began, "New York State currently lacks the revenues necessary to maintain its transportation system in a state of good repair, and the state has no credible strategy for meeting future needs.".

In the past two years, little seems to have changed.

Who's in Charge

In not acting on any of the revenue producing measures, legislators have repeatedly charged the MTA with mismanagement. During the debate, Cuomo did appear to stake out a position on that. "I believe the governor should be accountable for the MTA," he said. "People have the right to know who's in charge and who's responsible, and I think it should be the governor."

What exactly that means in terms of a potential overhaul of the MTA's management structure remains unclear, though. While the MTA is considered a quasi-independent authority, the governor himself directly nominates six of the 17 members of the board of directors, including the chairman and CEO. The mayor recommends four to the governor.

"I think he can exercise leadership, but I don't think a restructuring of the board is useful in the long term," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The current chair, Walder, has been commended by transit experts for saving $525 million through consolidation of redundant positions, elimination of excessive overtime pay, pay freezes for management and other initiatives.

Historically, a new governor selects his own head of the MTA. Russianoff was one of 11 signatories on a letter sent to Cuomo urging him to retain Walder.

"I don't think much would be gained by replacing Walder with someone who would require a learning curve," Russianoff said. "We've had our disagreements with Walder, but he's been a candid professional and can remain on merit."

Plus, Walder's six-year contract, signed in July 2009, was cleverly constructed so it would be costly for any incoming governor to replace him.

Transit Transition

Cuomo's transition team on transportation could provide some clue of what the governor-elect might be thinking about any of this. Transit advocates are noticeably absent. The panel is heavy on representatives from the private sector.

"First and foremost I think they're about dollars and cents and jobs," Budnick said. "I think that gives an insight into where Cuomo's looking. If you look at the list of who's on the transition team, it's unclear what it implies in terms of his policy priorities."

Pundits point to the disparity between Cuomo's transportation transition team and that of former Gov. Elliot Spitzer, which featured more transportation advocates and labor union representatives. With the contract between the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the government up in a year, Petro thinks Cuomo may be sending a message with his money-before-policy mentality.

"I think Cuomo thinks that talking about raising revenue before the contract renegotiations is a poor idea," Petro said. "Is that in the best interest for the city and transit riders and for the region's economy? No. The longer we wait, the bigger the hole is going to be. But Cuomo has drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, that he will not look to raising revenue for the MTA without [first] making the point to labor that he expects more efficiencies."

Russianoff, who served on Spitzer’s transportation transition team, believes Cuomo will continue to emphasize cost cutting and management "until the beginning of 2012 when they start running out of money. It's going to look a little different then."

During that span the $525 million Walder has already finagled in savings is expected to rise -- reaching $700 million by 2014, according to Donovan. Those additional savings would come from the deferment of roughly half of the 280 current construction and restoration projects and a thorough consolidation of maintenance operations, inventory management and operations support activities. The MTA already stalled expansion plans and eliminated two subway lines and 36 bus routes last year.

Other Options

In the search for a solution, Cuomo could look some less-discussed revenue options that other cities have tried with mixed results.

San Francisco requires developers to reimburse the government for at least a portion of the cost associated with providing additional public services to people who live in or otherwise take advantage of a new project. In New York, while real estate developers do contribute to transit funding, Petro believes they could afford to pitch in more.

Chicago and London both awarded special contracts to private businesses in return for transit improvements. In Chicago, the government gave Apple Inc. exclusive advertising rights in a station in exchange for the cost of refurbishing the stop. More recently, Chicago announced it is considering selling the naming rights to the various public train lines.

During Walder’s time in London, however, he witnessed the downside of privatization. The city signed a 30-year public private partnership with three infrastructure companies, charging them with maintenance and upkeep of London's underground train system, the Tube. This past May, however, the city bought out the remaining public private partnerships after one of the companies went bankrupt, losing several hundred million pounds of taxpayer money.

With Parking Tickets, New Yorkers Are Guilty Until Proven Innocent

parking ticket
Photo by Maulleigh

Some things are almost universally avoided whenever possible: jury duty, dental work, parking tickets.

While annoying, each of these serves a greater personal or social purpose. With parking tickets, there are policy considerations and revenue benefits, and the fines serve as an incentive for advancing those policies: keeping parking spots available, allowing street cleaning, helping traffic move.

That does not make anyone want to pay them, though. For many people the main experience they have with courts involves contesting or paying motor vehicle infractions, whether moving or parking. A judge attending a party of non-lawyers can always expect other guests to tell him or her about jury service or the terrible things that happened in traffic court.

With parking tickets, one issue revolves around the ability to plead "not guilty." New Yorkers can fight parking tickets, but until the final decision is rendered, they will be presumed guilty of letting the meter run out, parking on the wrong side of the street on alternative side parking days or having incorrectly interpreted the often confusing signs that mark streets in many of the city's businesses district.

Fighting the Ticket

A person can plead not guilty of a parking offense by mail, on the internet or in person. The problem though, is that the New York City Parking Violations Bureau and the Department of Finance require the driver or registered owner to pay the fine within 30 days. Pleading not guilty by mail or on the internet may result in a determination more than 30 days later. Paying the fine upon a finding of guilt then could entail a late penalty for the 30 days the not-guilty plea was under consideration. So someone who does not pay the fine, pleads not guilty and is found guilty must pay not only the original fine but also the penalty for late payment.

The Parking Violations Bureau adjudicated 1.27 million parking summons at in-person hearings in 2009, according to Dennis Boshnack, a Queens attorney with expertise in parking violations cases and a former Parking Violations Bureau administrative law judge or hearing officer. Writing in the New York Law Journal, Boshnack maintains that most drivers give up their fight because they are representing themselves and cannot continue litigation alone and/or pay lawyer's fees that can easily cost more than the fine itself. The small amounts of money involved in individual cases make suing the Parking Violations Bureau "unaffordable or impractical."

The Whole Truth?

In one case, Sanford Young, a lawyer, was ticketed for allegedly parking on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at 6:59 p.m. in a spot where parking was not allowed until 7 p.m. He did fight the case and estimated that he spent $10,000 of his own legal time on it.

A Notice of Parking Violation (the summons) was issued to Young’s vehicle as it sat parked across from 1330 First Ave. The summons charged violation of the weekday prohibition against parking in that area between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. On Dec. 9, 2005, Young entered a plea of not guilty through the city's website and requested an online hearing. In the field provided to explain the asserted defense, he made the following statement:

"A New York Minute": The ticket, which says I was parked at 6:59 p.m. in a "No Parking ... 4P-7P" area is absurd and wrong! Knowing full well -- as a life long New Yorker and lawyer -- that it is not legal to park on the avenues until 7:00 p.m., and that some officers write tickets in the last few, I did not park my car until a couple of mins past 7:00. I am certain it was past 7:00 because I was watching my car clock -- which is in the instrument panel. I also know that the clock is accurate because I synchronize it with my cell phone which time is set by Verizon and my watch. Therefore, I respectfully ask that the summons be dismissed. Thank you.

By letter, the Department of Finance's Adjudication Bureau acknowledged receipt of the request for a hearing and offered to reduce the fine from $65 to $43. Young did not accept the offer. An administrative law judge issued a decision and order finding the petitioner -- Young -- guilty, saying, "Respondent is not persuasive that he did not park until after the restriction ended."

The Parking Violations Bureau suggested that the agent's sworn summons must prevail over petitioner's unsworn online statement. The city, though, allows written testimony to be submitted through its website, and that testimony is always unsworn. If the sworn summons of a traffic officer would, as a matter of course, prevail over the electronically submitted testimony, submitting it would then, regardless of the facts of the situation, be an exercise in futility -- an illusory alternative to a paper or in-person response. Young's summons was ultimately dismissed in State Supreme Court.

Another motorist received a "red-light summons" for being in a crosswalk after the yellow light turned red. This is not considered a "moving violation" because the offense was detected by photos taken by hidden cameras. The driver pled not guilty, by mail, contesting the position of her car in the photo. Upon a written finding of guilt, she sent a check for the full penalty, $50. However, the city added another $25 because more than 30 days had elapsed since she received Notice of the Violation.

Boshnack points out that when motorists do appeal, the agency may render the case moot by dismissing the ticket and refunding fines already paid. In that event, the case goes no further -- a good outcome for the driver that may reflect the city’s desire to avoid further litigation or to avoid determinations adverse to the Parking Violations Bureau.

Drivers though should not count on that and think they can skip paying the fine. Paying the penalty is a prerequisite for appealing a Parking Violations Bureau decision. The Rules of the City of New York read, "No appeal shall be permitted unless the fines and penalties assessed by the Hearing Examiner are paid, or the respondent shall have posted a cash or recognized surety company bond in the full amount of the final determination appealed from." In other words, payment is due before a determination is made. That might be called a presumption of guilt.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice

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