NEW ORLEANS — Monroe Coleman stood before the City Council on Thursday, motioned to the crowd of taxi cab drivers who piled into the chamber and asked the council members to take a good look at the audience.
“Come Jan. 1 you won’t see some of these drivers,” Coleman warned. “They’ll be out of business.”
The owner of Coleman Cab Co. was one of several people who asked the council to approve an ordinance that would raise the age limit on permitted taxis in the city to 10 years. Included in a package of ordinances passed last year to revamp the taxi cab industry in the city is the law that no taxi can be permitted next year if it is more than 7 years old.
But despite nearly two hours of discussion Thursday, with many drivers asking for the change since they fear being run out of business, the ordinance failed 4-3. Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson, District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry, District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and District C Councilwoman Kristin Palmer voted against it. Council President Stacy Head, District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and District E Councilman James Gray, who authored the ordinance, voted in favor of it.
Gray introduced the ordinance in March. It would have amended the new laws and raised the age limit to 10 years. The move came after many smaller, minority-owned taxi cab companies approached him with concerns about the cost of buying a new vehicle every seven years.
But on Thursday, Landrieu administration officials told the council that they opposed the idea since the new rules were worked on for years with input from various parties.
“The administration’s position remains constant,” said Eric Granderson, an aide to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “We think we’ve seen great results.”
And though Taxicab Bureau Director Malachi Hull told the council that the vehicle age limit was settled upon only after doing research on peer cities and their policies, several drivers said they cannot afford to buy a new vehicle every seven years.
Dolores Montgomery, a Coleman Cab driver, held up photos of one taxi that appeared to be in good condition but will be taken off of the streets at the end of the year since it is older than the law will allow.
“This makes no sense,” she said. That driver will now be forced to go into debt to buy a vehicle to replace one that has no problem other than its age, she said.
Ike Spears, an attorney for United Cab and Coleman Cab who filed a lawsuit against the reforms when they were introduced, said that “everybody wants junk taxis off the street.”
But, he added, there is a risk that many drivers will be forced out of the industry when faced with a new down payment and car note every seven years.
He also questioned whether the idea behind the new taxi cab ordinances introduced last year were designed to clear the way for out-of-town taxi cab companies to operate here without competition from smaller, local companies.
“I’m asking y’all to have some compassion for us,” said United driver Patrick Murphy.
Jeff Anding, who represents the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there had been years of research done on the topic and the city is in competition with other metro areas when it comes to tourism. And though he said the tourism industry supports the drivers, having a clean, modern taxi cab fleet is necessary.
“We cannot take this competitive position lightly,” he told the council.
Hedge-Morrell said that requiring drivers to replace their vehicles so often was an “undue burden.”
Head said that while the ordinances that will require upgrades to taxis, such as credit card machines and security cameras, were needed, there also is the need to revisit the issue again. The bottom line, she said, is the condition of each individual vehicle.
But Palmer, who introduced the reforms at the request of the Landrieu administration, said 1,527 of the city’s 1,600 licensed taxi cabs already have complied with the new requirements and that making changes at this point would not be fair to those who have “played by the rules.”
If changes are going to be made to the age requirement, she said, she wanted to see a fact-based analysis on revenues for drivers, though many of the drivers appeared to be concerned about their expenses, rather than revenues.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction,” Palmer said of Gray’s ordinance.
“I rarely do anything by knee-jerk reaction,” Gray said in response, adding that he thought about the drivers’ concerns before he introduced the ordinance. Just because one vehicle is new does not mean it will not have problems, and just because a vehicle is old does not mean it will have problems, he said.
“I do think there should be logic to decisions we make,” Gray said.