A group of changes to the city's ordinance governing taxis and liveries was officially introduced by a council vote on Wednesday night.
In the past, cabs at the Hoboken PATH station often picked a passenger up but then lingered in order to find other passengers going to the same place, in order to grab multiple fares at once. They would often reject passengers who were going to different neighborhoods than the first passenger.
While the practice was technically against city law, the city did not have time to constantly monitor the taxi pick-ups, and cabbies often got away with it.
If the new ordinance goes into effect - which it would do 20 days after the Feb. 6 vote - cabbies still won't be allowed to linger in order to find out where the passengers on line are going. However, they can pick up at least two fare-paying passengers at once, as long as they don't linger.
The new limit of people in the cab at once will be four passengers, and there can be no more than two paying customers at a time. In other words, extra people can share the ride if they are also sharing the fare.
Cab drivers have long complained about high maintenance costs of their cars, and have wanted to increase the fares for some time. At Wednesday's meeting, they were also up in arms over the city's proposal to auction off seven new taxi medallions this spring, meaning they'd have more competition. The sale of the medallions, which permit cabs to do business in town, will bring in more than $1 million in revenues for Hoboken's budget, and will increase the number of licensed cabs in town from 58 to 65.
The amendment passed on Wednesday initially stated that when taxicab drivers picked up multiple passengers, the second paying customer would pay only $2.50 for a ride within Hoboken, rather than $5. However, it was changed for the sake of the drivers and owners.
In addition, the law allows for people to insist on being the only passenger in the car, and if there is more than one passenger, the first fare taken must be from the first person dropped off at their location.
Another major aspect of the proposals going before the council was the emphasis on environmentally-friendly "green" hybrid vehicles being used for the new cabs. The new specifications put forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deal specifically with air pollution and fuel efficiency. New taxis will not be provided with a medallion unless these specifications are met.
Currently, the existing taxis do not have to abide by the same environmentally-friendly policy; however, according to the city's Taxi and Limousine division head, Annette Chaparro, they will have to do so in time.
The proposals introduced during Wednesday's special City Council meeting received a 6-0 vote of approval, with Council Members Ruben Ramos Jr., Angelo Giacchi, and President Theresa Castellano not in attendance.
Wednesday night's meeting was a special meeting. According to Corporation Counsel Steven Kleinman, the reason the special meeting was held now, was because the process had been "stalled on previous occasions a number of times" and the city felt it important to move it along.
'Raw deal,' or 'fair compromise'?
According to several officials in favor of the medallion auction, in addition to the financial incentive, more cabs on the street will alleviate what they say is an increased demand for taxi service by residents citywide.
Conversely, cabbies claim that with the exception of rush hour and inclement weather, there are already too many cabs on the streets, as demonstrated by the line of cabs that stretch from the taxi stand outside the PATH station.
"Except for rush hour, I wait 45 minutes to an hour to get one fare. And they're saying we need more cabs," said Osvaldo Herrara, a Hoboken cabbie of over 15 years. "Two years ago, the council promised us they would not sell any more medallions. Now here they are. This is going to hurt every one in this business. It's a raw deal any way you look at it."
A major cabbie concern expressed after the conclusion of Wednesday evening's meeting is the proposed reduction of points allowed on one's license before it is suspended. Currently, cabbies are allowed to receive up to eight points before suspension; however, with the proposed ordinance, five or more points would lead to a suspension.
According to several cabbies, this means one ticket issued by a police officer could result in their receiving four points on their license and possibly losing their livelihood.
According to Chapparro, who oversees all the day-to-day affairs between the city and taxi cab owners and drivers, if a driver reaches five points, they could be given the option to take a class on safe driving and possibly receive their license back on a provisional basis; however, new drivers with five or more points on their license are disqualified from driving a Hoboken taxi period.
Chaparro is also in charge of handling resident complaints, which she says sometimes can be handled through a phone call to the city or might require the complainant to come into City Hall to file a written statement. Chaparro can be reached at (201) 420-2000.
"Safety comes first, no matter what, which is why we're doing this," said Councilwoman Theresa LaBruno last week. "However, if the council deems at a later date that it is unfair to cabbies, it can always be changed back to eight points, but now it's staying at [five]." LaBruno also said that the city had made some concessions to cab drivers regarding the number of medallions.
"My heart goes out to the cab drivers," she added. "They're good, hardworking people, but changes had to be made, and I think we found middle ground, compromises that satisfied the need for more cabs expressed by the community and many of the cabs expressed by the drivers themselves. Honestly, though, I don't think they will be happy until we say we're not auctioning any medallions at all."
LaBruno said she has heard residents complain about having to wait 30 to 45 minutes to get a cab at the PATH during peek hours.
Included in the proposals going before the council is the city's intent to create a dispatch for the 2008-2009 fiscal year to better organize the cab service, specifically at the PATH station.
Hoboken and Jersey City
The last significant argument put forth by several cab supporters was a comparison between the city of Hoboken and its neighbor to the south, Jersey City. According to Jersey City Press Secretary Jennifer Morrill, there are currently 104 licensed taxi cabs operating in Jersey City, which is only 46 more than Hoboken's current 58 cabs. Considering that Jersey City is 14 times the size of Hoboken in land mass, taxi advocates say this is another example that Hoboken is exceeding the amount of cabs needed.
When asked for a reaction to the comparison, Mayor David Roberts, who is in favor of the new medallions, said the needs of Hoboken are more aligned with those of Manhattan.
"We are the leading tourist destination behind Atlantic City in the state of New Jersey," Roberts said. "Hoboken has become a place where people come from all over to visit."
Roberts' reasoning didn't satisfy one longtime critic. Community activist Maurice DeGennaro argued that the city was balancing its budget on the back of its cabbies.
"What this city needs to do is conduct an independent study," said DeGennaro. "If it concludes we need more cabs, then I'll go along with it. This city is always looking to hurt the little guy, and this is no exception."
A lack of stands and illegal competition
One problem Roberts did acknowledge was the lack of taxi stands in other locations throughout the city, particularly in the northern part of town, which in turn results in a congregation of cabs at the PATH station competing for the same fares. Although Roberts could not provide a timeline, he said that it would be a priority for his administration to create at least two taxi stands in the northern part of town with the aim of servicing the light rail and ferry commuters.
Roberts pointed out that yellow cabs are the only form of public transportation that can be hailed by passengers from anywhere in Hoboken, where as it is illegal for limousine and livery cars to pick people up from the street.
Even with that advantage, one of the biggest concerns of both drivers and cab owners was what they consider to be the increasing amount of livery taxis and limousines which coast through Hoboken, waiting on corners or stopping by bus stops and illegally picking up passengers that might use the yellow taxi service.
Both Roberts and LaBruno expressed an interest in finding a way to better enforce the existing laws.
Michael Mullins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.