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May 15, 1998

Giuliani Threatens Action If Cabbies Fail to Cancel a Protest

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    Escalating his showdown with the city's taxi drivers, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani threatened Thursday to allow vans and livery cars to pick up passengers off the street beginning on Monday unless yellow cab drivers cancel plans to hold another demonstration next week.

    Giuliani issued the ultimatum a day after most of the city's 44,000 cabbies, upset about new safety rules that the Mayor wants to impose, staged a one-day protest that left many streets clear and horn-free yet forced many people to turn to public transportation to get around.

    Giuliani said that even if the drivers call off their plans for a second job action on Thursday, he still planned to use the strike as an opening to try to break the yellow cabs' 61-year monopoly on "street hails" -- the ability to pick up passengers at the curb in the five boroughs.

    "They are presenting us with opportunities that I'm more than happy to take advantage of, which the city has not been able to take advantage of for the last 20 to 30 years, to introduce a lot more competition into their industry," the Mayor said at a news conference in midtown Manhattan.

    Liberalized cab-hailing rules would be a drastic economic and cultural change for a city where the law limits the number of yellow cabs to 12,187. That has driven the value of a medallion -- the tin plate, bolted to the hood, that makes a taxi official -- to $250,000.

    A drivers' group has threatened to continue its protest against the new regulations next Thursday by driving in a caravan from Astoria, Queens to City Hall, causing a heavy jam.

    In response, Giuliani said he planned to sign an emergency order, to take effect Monday, that would permit the city's 35,000 livery drivers to accept street hails in Manhattan for the next 60 days, unless the demonstration is called off. Commuter vans would also be allowed to pick up passengers.

    "We're going to authorize them to do it until this state of emergency ends," he said. "If they, for example, announce that they're not going to do anything on Thursday, then we won't have to go forward with this. But right now, they are saying that on Thursday they're going to try to close down the city."

    In addition, Giuliani said that drivers who tried to hold up traffic would be arrested and would risk the loss of their licenses and taxi medallions.

    "You can't let anybody have a stranglehold on your city," the Mayor said. "I think the people of the city are fed up with the way they've been driving. I've heard these complaints for years, and we're finally doing something about it."

    The organizer of Thursday's protest, Vijay Bali of the United Yellow Cab Drivers Association, said he had no plans to back down.

    "He is just trying to show his muscle because yesterday he lost," Bali said.

    He said that the 2,000 drivers he claims to represent simply want a voice in drafting new regulations on cabdrivers. "We are not questioning the regulations," he said. "We are questioning the fashion."

    Under the rule changes Giuliani had proposed, drivers would be required to take a defensive-driving class, fines for smoking in a cab would increase from $25 to $125, and a hack license could be revoked or suspended if the driver received too many moving violations.

    The rules also would mandate additional insurance. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade and the New York City Committee for Taxi Safety, two industry groups that represent the big fleets and the leasing operations, respectively, released a survey showing that some premiums could double.

    The dispute seems tailor-made for the Mayor, who relishes his image as the man who tamed the nation's largest city, cutting the crime rate and cleaning up the streets.

    "There is not a great deal of public sympathy for the taxi drivers," Giuliani acknowledged. "So as a political issue, this is what you call a no-brainer."

    Giuliani said he had the power to make the temporary change in street-hailing rules, but that any long-term changes would have to be approved by the City Council.

    Councilman Noach Dear, a Democrat from Brooklyn who is chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he was skeptical of the Mayor's plans, in part because the city gets substantial revenue from medallions. "Obviously, the Mayor is posturing," Dear said. "Also obviously, the public is on his side."

    Giuliani said that under his emergency order, the Taxi and Limousine Commission would set and enforce the rates for the unmetered drivers. On Wednesday, for example, in response to the one-day strike, the commission allowed 175 vans to operate from the city's two airports into Manhattan for a fare of $10. "They literally organized that in one hour, so I suspect if you give them a couple days to organize, they could do a lot better," he said. "Whatever the inconvenience of yesterday, it'll be even less on Thursday."

    Regardless of whether the drivers call off their protest, the Mayor said he planned to look for new ways to promote competition in city transportation.

    "I don't know the value of saying that only a certain number of people can pick up people on the street," he said. "I don't know that that doesn't create monopoly. That creates a lot of the problems that we've had for years. If we really believe that competition brings better services, then what we're doing with yellow cabs means we're creating worse service, right?"

    The police released figures showing that accidents involving injuries had declined from the previous Wednesday, dropping from 36 to 33, or about 8 percent, for all vehicles and from 6 to 2 for bicycles. Marilyn Mode, the deputy police commissioner for public information, attributed the reduction to the strike. "It was less congested, and the taxi drivers weren't out driving recklessly," she said.

    The drivers have said they wanted to meet with the Mayor to discuss the new rules. But Giuliani said yesterday he had no such plans.

    "I don't really care what they're saying," he said. "I don't negotiate with people who want to close the city down -- never have, never will."

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