• Mark Markovich

Portland's taxi industry has seen sweeping shifts since Portland City Council allowed Uber and Lyft into the city in late April. Now Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick is mulling a few more.

As Portland City Council gets ready to mull permanent rule changes, Novick sent a letter [pdf] to the city's cab outfits and transportation network companies (TNCs) on April 13, laying out possibilities for further changes.

Among the most intriguing: Novick says he'd consider paying the city's cab companies for the expensive wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) they acquired in the chaotic run-up to the Uber era.

"I am interested in the concept of somehow offering compensation from the City to those companies that made recent WAV investments," Novick wrote in the letter. "I ask the taxi companies to provide documentation of such recent expenditures."

The WAV issue is one of many raw deals cab companies say they've gotten in this whole process (TNCs have already snatched much of the market). Roughly two months before city council approved a 120-day pilot period that let Uber and Lyft in, the city's taxi board bucked years of tight regulation by allowing hundreds of new cabs onto city streets.

With those permissions came a requirement: That companies would ensure 20 percent of their fleets could accommodate wheelchairs. That percentage was already city policy, but it was frequently ignored. The city made clear it wouldn't issue permits for normal cabs until companies bolstered their wheelchair-accessible fleets.

And the cab companies complied, but just two months later it didn't matter. During the pilot project that's getting ready to wrap up, officials elected to do away with the whole 20 percent requirement altogether. They've instead gravitated toward performance benchmarks that ensure people in wheelchairs don't get vastly slower service than other customers. It's likely those benchmarks will be part of permanent regulations going forward.

Cab companies want to hear more about Novick's proposal to pay them back. Broadway Cab president Raye Miles, in a response to the commissioner's letter, wrote she wasn't prepared to show the city her expenses but is "interested in seeing a definitive plan for a city subsidy." Radio Cab General Manager Steve Entler said he'd be happy to provide documentation.

Novick, meanwhile, isn't divulging much. "I’ve got a couple of ideas of how it might work, but I want to get a better handle on the taxis’ recent expenditures before broadcasting them," he tells the Mercury.

One big question: Where the money for the subsidies would come from. The Portland Bureau of Transportation reaped huge rewards in this year's budget discussions—pulling down more than $20 million in general fund money to help bolster its inadequate revenues—but much of that's money's been promised to various maintenance projects.

Meanwhile, a task-force looking at taxi rules has recommended tacking on a small fee to taxi and TNC rides that would subsidize wheelchair accessible service in town. It's unclear if that money could have a role in Novick's notion.

Reimbursing cab companies isn't the only idea Novick has brought up. He also wrote he’d be willing to allow cabs to offer stepped-down insurance coverage for drivers who aren’t carrying a passenger or on their way to picking one up—similar to the controversial arrangement Uber and Lyft have concocted. Representatives from Broadway and Radio Cab responded, as usual, by repudiating those phased-in insurance plans.

Novick also asked TNCs if they’d want the right to pick up passengers who hail them on the street—something currently illegal for Uber and Lyft drivers—in exchange for agreeing to accept cash payments, install cameras, and paint their vehicles.

Lastly, Novick solicited ideas for new protections for TNC and cab drivers, a request that was met with derision by cabbies. Broadway Cab President Miles responded to Novick that she found it “more than passing strange that this concern for drivers’ economic wellbeing arrives after the deregulation experiment has already severely damaged the economic welfare of most branded taxi drivers.”

Radio Cab Manager Entler piled on. "I also concur with Raye's assessment of whether or not you are genuinely concerned with driver's welfare," he wrote.