News & Politics

DC Taxi Commission Chairman Says FTC’s Criticism Is Wrong but Threatening

Ron Linton hits back in favor of taxi and sedan regulation. But problems persist, such as continued delays in credit card implementation.

Photograph by Flickr user Wayan Vota.

Ron Linton, the chairman of the DC Taxicab Commission, says a member of the Federal Trade Commission who took to the op-ed pages to say that the District is stymying competition among the livery industry was way off-base in his criticism.

Linton is responding to a column published last weekend in the Washington Post by Joshua D. Wright, a George Mason University law professor who joined the FTC in January. In his Post article, Wright wrote that the commission’s recent regulations concerning the types of vehicles that can serve as sedans for hire limits customer choice.

Wright’s complaint is similar to one voiced last month by Uber, the digital dispatch company and frequent foe of the taxi commission. Its newest line, UberX, uses mid-size, non-luxury, hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion as a class of service between a standard-issue cab and a full-sized Lincoln Town Car. The commission’s new regulations, however, state that the only cars that can be used as hired sedans are those that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a “luxury sedan,” “upscale sedan,” or “sport-utility vehicle.”

But Wright’s column came with more teeth than Uber’s griping. He closed by recalling instances in which the FTC has sued cities over restrictive livery regulations. In an interview with Washingtonian, Linton says he understood the message, and it was obviously not a friendly one.

“I thought it was a direct threat,” Linton says. “I didn’t think it was veiled at all.”

Linton also says that Wright overlooked many things in composing his condemnation of DC’s taxi regulating agency. “Any suggestion that we are impeding competition is false,” Linton says. “Commissioner Wright has not looked carefully at all of the details and complexities involved in the public vehicle for hire industry in Washington. We’re denying e-hails? I don’t think that measures up”

The FTC said yesterday it will not comment on any possible future enforcement actions, but the commission was one of many entities that submitted a public comment on the DC Taxicab Commission’s regulations. In particular, it urged the taxi commission not to restrict mid-sized hybrids from operating as sedans.

“The use of fuel efficient vehicles may be an important component of consumer demand for sedan services and the proposed rule would impede sedan operators from competing with regard to this feature,” the FTC wrote.

Linton says the FTC’s comment was considered, but ultimately found to be “pertinent to what we were doing.” He also objects to Wright’s insinuation that the taxi commission is impeding electronic taxi hails in general, saying that in addition to Uber, digital dispatch services offered by companies including Hailo, TaxiMagic, TaxiRadar, and others are all running in compliance.

But Linton is increasingly finding himself in the position of having to defend the very existence of his agency. A recent Post editorial called for the taxi commission’s dissolution, an opinion picked up by DC Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells.

One area where Linton readily acknowledges that DC’s livery industry is still straggling is in the installation of credit card readers. Originally, all 7,300 of the city’s cabs were supposed to have the devices set up by August 31. But after it was obvious that deadline would not be met, the commission allowed taxi companies to apply for a one-month extension.

Even with that grace period though, Linton says that at best, there will probably still be at least 2,000 taxis without credit card readers on September 30. “We have an element among these car owners who just don’t want to do it,” Linton says. “We’re dragging them kicking and screaming.”

But there will be no more extensions. Come October 1, Linton says any cab caught without a credit card reader will be hauled off to impound.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.