Phila. braces for possible taxi strike

Posted: September 04, 2007

Philadelphians and visitors to the city could face a long wait for a taxi Wednesday.

The largest group representing drivers of city medallion cabs plans to start a 48-hour strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday, a concerted action with New York City cabbies to protest the imposition of in-cab global-positioning dispatch and credit card systems.

"We're very confident that we're going to get a high level of participation," said Ronald Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, which represents about 1,200 Philadelphia cabbies.

There are 1,600 medallion taxis in Philadelphia and about 200 non-medallion cabs that operate in Germantown, the Far Northeast, and lower Bucks County.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which has regulated city cabs since 2005, has authorized operators of 2,000 limousines to pick up passengers at taxi stands at such high-traffic spots as Philadelphia International Airport, 30th Street Station, and the Convention Center should the cabbies strike.

Linda J. Miller, Parking Authority spokeswoman, said the executive order allowing the city's 161 limousine companies to fill the vacuum left by striking taxi drivers was also used to cope with a one-day strike in May 2006 that left about 100 cabs operating.

Miller said that the limousines would respond to anyone hailing them on the street but that there would be no central dispatching as with taxis. Anyone calling for a ride would have to pick a limousine company from the phone book.

The potential strike comes when many are returning to Center City from vacations and when 30,000 people are in town for the 127th annual session of the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc., the nation's oldest and largest African American religious convention.

"It's a good thing that Philadelphia is a very walkable city," said Anthony Malerba, a spokesman for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

Malerba said visitors have several alternatives to using cabs, including buses and subways and the "Tut Trolley," the $2-a-trip shuttle that takes visitors from Independence National Historical Park to the King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute.

The tourism group's Web site - www.gophila.com - includes information about transportation options.

David Benton, vice president and general manager of the Rittenhouse Hotel, said his biggest worry was getting people to and from the airport and train station.

Benton said that the hotel had two house cars and had put on extra drivers, and that he had made his personal car available. Some guests have hired limos for the day.

At issue is a $4 million system produced for the authority by VeriFone Transportation Systems, a New York joint venture of VeriFone Inc. and TaxiTronic Inc.

The system, which the Parking Authority has required for medallion cabs, includes a global-positioning system, or GPS, integrated with the cabs' dispatcher, and a meter that lets passengers pay using a credit card or "smart card."

Blount said the GPS frequently loses contact with the satellite, which means the drivers lose contact with dispatchers - and potential customers. Drivers also complain that the credit card device can fail because of signal problems.

Although Miller acknowledged there were problems with the system and said the authority was withholding about $1 million in payments to VeriFone Transportation, she said the authority believed the drivers' real objection was being forced to accept credit cards.

In an interview last week, Amos Tamam, chief executive officer of VeriFone Transportation, said that he was confident the problems in Philadelphia would be resolved and that the company would complete its contract on schedule.

Tamam called the system a "tremendous cultural change in the taxi industry in Philadelphia."

Tamam said some problems may have been caused by vehicle mechanical problems and others by "driver training and drivers' willingness to accept change."

Philadelphia was a pilot project for VeriFone, one of four companies that will install similar systems in New York's 13,180 medallion cabs beginning Oct. 1.

The New York program is why the Taxi Workers Alliance of New York, which claims to represent about a third of the city's 20,000 active cabbies, has also called for a 48-hour strike for Wednesday and Thursday.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the city would not reverse the decision to install the technology in New York cabs.

Bloomberg also discounted the chance of a widespread walkout: "Our expectation at the moment is that there will be very few, if any, taxi drivers striking [today] and the next day. I think cooler heads will prevail."


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Dan Rubin contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.

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