NEW ORLEANS -- It's been one year since the city of New Orleans forced a reluctant taxicab industry to undergo a major overhaul, including the addition of security cameras, credit card machines and newer cars.
Lawsuits filed by several cab companies to block the measures have been defeated, and accompanying street protests have faded from the rear-view mirror.
But that hardly means the taxi drivers placated. Many for-hire transportation companies are now complaining that back-door policy changes and overzealous enforcement are creating additional headaches and extracting even more money from an industry already being squeezed.
One result of the new procedures can be seen at the city’s taxicab inspection station in New Orleans East. Cabs start lining up hours in the early hours of the morning, even on days when the station doesn’t open until noon. In past years, lines were non-existent, the drivers said.
The lines are a result of a new schedule that divides the week into three days for the semi-annual cab inspections and two days for re-inspections.
In the past, when a cab didn’t pass an inspection, the driver returned within 30 days after correcting the problem. Now when a cab doesn’t pass an initial inspection, the meter starts running with late fees until the driver can fix the issue, then return to the same long lines.
“We are barely, I mean barely, making a living, and they put all these rules on us like it’s nothing,” said Robert Moulton Jr. of Elk’s Elite cab company.
Moulton arrived at 4 a.m. last Wednesday, waiting for the station to open at noon.
“Fee after fee after fee after fee. They’re just callous. I mean, who they think they are?” he asked. “They’re just throwing things at people arbitrarily. It’s absurd. It’s cynical. It’s power-hungry. It’s awful.”
Moulton wasn’t even the first in line that day. That honor went to Islam Mohamed of American Cab. He arrived at 3 a.m., making his wait time at nine hours.
“They’re making everything hard on us, and they’re not making anything to help us,” Mohamed said.
The city is unapologetic.
Malachi Hull, director of the Taxicab Bureau, said splitting the schedule into inspection and re-inspection days keeps cab owners from using the station as a “free diagnostic center.”
The goal, Hull said, is to get drivers and their companies to fix problems ahead of their inspections and avoid a return trip.
Hull has been the face of the taxicab bureau since he was hired two years ago after holding the same job in Atlanta. With an intensity that matches his military background in the Army Reserves, Hull has a reputation of being a no-nonsense – and hands-on – reformer.
“Well, change is never easy,” he said. “When you’ve been doing something for a long period of time, anytime you change it, you have to change behaviors.”
While the bureau continues to receive complaints from the industry, Hull said many companies are starting to embrace the reforms.
“Even individuals who complained about it before are saying, you know, we didn’t see the vision before and now we understand. We’re making more money now. Our vehicles are out of service less.”
But one third-generation local company, Bonomolo Limousines, questions if Hull has taken things too far.
“For over 40 years, we’ve run a successful business,” manager Chris Bonomolo said. “We rebuilt after Katrina. We’ve changed equipment. Upgraded fleets. Never had an issue.”
But the company confronted a big issue in June when it tried swapping a permit from a 2007 mini-bus to a 2011 Lincoln Navigator SUV. Bonomolo said he went by the book, the city’s two-inch thick code of ordinances, which describes a van as a seven-seat vehicle or larger.
The company’s “change of equipment form” was approved and signed by a taxicab office supervisor, but when Bonomolo took the seven-seat SUV to the inspection station, it was rejected.
The inspector said the rules had changed, now listing the Navigator as a “luxury sedan” rather than a van. According to city rules, anything listed as a luxury sedan can only be replaced with a brand new vehicle.
“No ordinances have been presented. No such approvals have been presented,” Bonomolo said. “I don’t want to say it all happened behind closed doors, but these are policies that aren’t in the code.”
The company immediately set out to get answers. Bonomolo contacted members of the City Council. He wrote to Hull’s supervisor at the office of safety and permits.
During Bonomolo’s exchanges with City Hall, another vehicle in the company fleet was flagged for noncompliance. A 17-passengber mini-bus was denied a permit in July because it was determined that a decal showing the vehicle’s permit number was too hard to see.
But the denial didn’t take place until after the vehicle went through a four-hour inspection line and was approved by a city employee. Company owner Joe Bonomolo Jr. took a photo of the inspector scraping off the sticker from the vehicle’s windshield.
“I didn’t understand it,” Chris Bonomolo said. “I already did all the paperwork necessary. It was already processed. Our credit card was already processed. The inspector already put the inspection tag on it. So to have him come back and take it off was kind of confusing.”
When Bonomolo tried to find what happened, he found out that Malachi Hull personally ordered the removal of the sticker. Not only that, the last-second denial came after Hull himself snapped the picture of the vehicle with his cell phone while driving on the I-10 on the way to the inspection station.
In a July 15 email to other city officials, Hull forwarded the photo he took with his Blackberry and wrote, “Good afternoon. Please see the attached photo. I observed this vehicle while riding on the interstate this morning. As you can see, the CPNC number is not visible from the rear of the vehicle.”
Chris Bonomolo said he was taken aback to find out Hull had taken such a personal interest in his case.
“I can’t help but feel like I’m being targeted,” he said. “That may not be his intention, but with the chain of events, I can’t help think that.”
Hull denied targeting Bonomolo Limousine. He said the initial approval of the Navigator was a mistake by a new employee. He said that the employee was unaware of the bureau’s new list of luxury sedans that included the Navigator, a trendy new choice in the limousine industry.
“If one of our investigators makes an error,” Hull said, “if somebody overlooks something, and another investigator sees before they correct it, we’ll make sure that situation is corrected.”
As for taking a picture of Bopomofo’s mini-bus, Hull said he flags violations “whenever and wherever” he sees them. The mini-bus wasn’t the first vehicle he’s flagged, and it won’t be the last, he assured.
“I’m the head of the taxicab bureau. I lead by example,” he said. “Anytime we see violations, we make sure we take appropriate action to get those violations corrected ... would say that we’re focused.”
While people in the cab industry chafe at the reforms – including the procedural changes not adopted in by ordinance – hospitality professionals applaud the overhaul as an upgrade to the city’s image.
“The reaction from visitors has been positive,” said Kelly Schulz, vice-president of communications for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Every once and awhile, we’ll get a complaint from the taxi drivers, but I think they’re starting to come around and see themselves as ambassadors for the city.”
Some of the changes, such as mandatory credit card machines, have merely helped New Orleans catch up to the rest of the country, Schulz said.
“A lot of visitors and convention organizers saw New Orleans taxicabs as antiquated,” she said. “It was below par compared to other cities. People nowadays expect credit card machines. They expect a driver with a GPS.”
Other reforms may be ahead of the curve, Schulz conceded, but they should be seen as part of a master plan to make the city a tourism model for the world.
“I know there have been a lot of complaints and debate,” Schulz said. “Change is hard, as Mayor Landrieu said. Some of that change is going to be painful for some people in the short term, but long term it makes us a more attractive city and everybody benefits.”
Meanwhile, Bonomolo said the purchase of the 2011 Navigator hasn’t been a total loss. The SUV now has permits to operate anywhere in the state or country – with the exception of New Orleans.