This month, Mayor Bloomberg and I announced the Bloomberg Administration’s efforts to work with the City Council to seek enhanced penalties for proven incidences of service refusal.

At the press conference, we showed several video highlights of undercover operations we had done, which illustrated, among other things, on-duty drivers asking for destinations prior to passengers getting in and then peeling off at high speed, and drivers flipping on the off-duty light in mid-conversation with hailing passengers.  The video attendees found most interesting was one in which a passenger hails a driver on Broadway near Wall Street for a trip to Brooklyn, and he claims that he does not know where the Brooklyn Bridge is before screeching off, blowing a red light and nearly hitting a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

Part of me wants to say these videos captured aberrations; just exceptions to what’s really going on out there in the streets, but we all know that’s simply not the case.  Refusals are happening, and they’re happening with alarming regularity, as though they were simply the manner in which business is done, and that’s just not acceptable.  We’ve written columns about the problem, we’ve distributed notices, we’ve addressed drivers’ meetings and we’ve spoken to reporters who’ve written stories ad nauseum about the problem, and it just hasn’t had the necessary effect.  How do we know it’s happening?  There are historically peaks and valleys when it comes to complaints, but when passengers take the time to call 311 and tell us they’ve been refused between the months of July 2010 and February 2011 at a rate that 36% higher than the same period a year earlier, it’s significant, and it’s serious.

So here we are talking about enhanced penalties.  In fact, unlike most TLC rule violation, the penalties for service refusals are set by Local Law, which is a part of the City’s Administrative Code, meaning that changing them requires legislation from the City Council.  I am pleased to report that Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca and many of his colleagues are equally intolerant of service refusals, and are therefore supportive of this Bloomberg initiative to create a higher level of disincentive.  As a result, we’re feeling very confident that it will be passed into law.

All the aforementioned having been said, I do just feel compelled to say the following.  There are those who say, “The TLC just wants to write more summonses and make more money from these new penalties.”  To that I say balderdash.  In fact, nothing would make us happier than to see the proposed higher penalties drive down the number of refusals.  This is a pervasive problem that has plagued this city and the taxi industry for decades…..a bruise to the industry’s reputation at a time when goodwill is crucial to its wellbeing.  Let’s prove the naysayers wrong……help us show how happy we can be when the service refusal problem is finally retired, once and for all.

I also wanted to take a moment to mention some really good news to the readers of this column.  You may recall that several years ago, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jerrold Nadler joined Mayor Bloomberg and the TLC in the fight for greener, more fuel efficient taxicabs by introducing the Green Taxis Act, a law created to update outdated federal statutes that were created to clean our air, but actually prevented us from doing just that.  Not only because we all have to breathe the air in this city and protect our children from asthma, but also to protect all the taxi drivers who have had to live with the decisions of fleet operators who have no stake in fuel efficiency.  In other words, they’re not the ones buying fuel…..YOU are.  Unfortunately, for various reasons, the Green Taxis Act was stalled in Congress.

A hopeful update to this is that, a few short days ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Gillibrand, Rep. Nadler and I stood in the plaza of City Hall to proudly announce that the Green Taxis Act lives again.  As of the date by which I write these words, the Green Taxis Act legislation will have been reintroduced, kindling hope throughout the country for a cleaner, healthier environment, and a more cost-effective taxi solution.

While the recent litigation continues to prevent the TLC from building fuel efficiency standards into the Taxi of Tomorrow project, my message today is one of hope.  There is a cleaner, healthier, smarter taxi industry on the horizon…..we deserve it, for sure, but more importantly, our children deserve it.

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