- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Washington, D.C., is forging ahead Wednesday with plans to install “smart meters” in about 6,500 taxicabs that offer pay-by-credit-card readers and other amenities, despite a mystifying dispute initiated by D.C. Council member Marion Barry over how to pay for it all.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Taxicab Commission are openly displeased with Mr. Barry’s legislative hold on a $1.3 million contract modification with VeriFone Systems that allows the District to pay for the installations instead of forcing drivers or taxicab companies to pick up tabs that can run to hundreds of dollars.

Mr. Gray, who plans to demonstrate the first fully equipped cab as part of his biweekly press briefing Wednesday, said the situation is “exasperating” and there is no firm rationale for Mr. Barry’s disapproval resolution.

Mr. Barry, known as the District’s “mayor for life,” uses the tactic frequently — he has filed seven such resolutions since the start of July — as a way to renegotiate contracts to obtain more jobs for D.C. residents.

“We already agreed to CBEs doing the work,” Mr. Gray said Tuesday, referring to certified business enterprises that are locally owned and promote the hiring of D.C. residents. “What else is there?”

Mr. Gray said the city is moving forward with the 90-day project even if the resolution from Mr. Barry, a Ward 8 Democrat who took credit for making sure certified business enterprises performed the installations,is not withdrawn.

Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron M. Linton said he had a “tough talk” Tuesday with Mr. Barry during which the former mayor told him that officials should wait until the end of the month, when the city’s Contract Appeals Board is scheduled to rule on challenges from two firms — Creative Mobile Technologies and RideCharge — which did not win the contract.

In a phone interview, Mr. Barry insisted that he had no problem with VeriFone and that the contract “went through a legitimate process.” He said he does not want the city to be placed in legal jeopardy by proceeding before the decision.

Mr. Linton said the commission’s attorneys have advised members that there is no problem with starting the installations.

“The procurement process was done correctly and fairly,” Mr. Linton said.

Mr. Barry last week filed the disapproval resolution, which holds up the payment mechanism until the council can act on it or until it expires. The move is particularly effective in the summer, with city lawmakers on recess until mid-September.

Mr. Barry defended his actions Tuesday.

“I’m a skillful legislator,” Mr. Barry said. “I do it to get information and to get D.C. residents jobs.”

The taxicab commission alerted drivers Monday that the resolution had been filed, although it did not identify Mr. Barry by name. If the issue could not be resolved by Wednesday, it said, “unfortunately drivers will be required to bear the cost of installation.”

“We remain hopeful that the D.C. Council Member blocking the District’s ability to cover the installation cost will withdraw his opposition,” the commission said.

Mr. Barry hit back at the taxicab commission by saying that Mr. Linton should “stop playing games.”

Meanwhile, the city is looking at alternative ways to pay for the installations, even it means reimbursing upfront costs, Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said.

“We’re going to work it out,” he said. “There’s more than one way to do it.”

The District unveiled the $35 million deal with VeriFone to install the meters equipped with credit card readers, GPS tracking and news programming in the city’s taxicabs as part of promised reforms to make the system as rider-friendly as those in cities such as New York.

Under the contract, officials said, riders no longer will have to rely on cash and will be able to summon help with a “safety” button in the cab. Riders also will be able to view NBC News, weather and sports programming on TV screens.

The deal was part of a broad package of reforms that Mr. Gray and other council members debated for months and which touched off heated protests among taxi drivers who think their leaders are burdening them with extra costs and intruding on their private businesses.

Mr. Gray has said the city in due time will introduce a uniform color scheme to replace the patchwork of exterior designs used by cab companies that do business in the District.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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