New taxi law would allow rate increase, put cameras in cabs

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage Assemblyman Dick Traini has unveiled a long-awaited, wide-ranging update to the city's taxi laws.

The revision, which was unveiled in draft form at a city Public Safety Committee meeting last week, would allow rates to go up by 50 cents a mile. It would quadruple the city's code enforcement efforts, expand background checks for aspiring drivers, and require every taxi cab to have surveillance cameras recording drivers and passengers, plus a GPS tracking system.

And it would also beef up standards for drivers and dispatchers of the city's 10 wheelchair-accessible taxis, which users have long criticized for delays.

At an Assembly work session Friday, Traini said he tackled the taxi laws because taken together, the areas he targeted for reform added up to a "public safety issue that needed to be dealt with."

Traini said the new law reflected the interests of people who came to testify on the bill before the Anchorage Transportation Commission, a five-member board whose members are appointed by the mayor.

"I listened to the testimony of people there, and so that's what we viewed as the vehicle for generating this," he said.

The taxi industry is complex one, with stakeholders including passengers, drivers, dispatch companies, and the owners of the taxi permits.

The new law, which will be introduced at the Assembly meeting Tuesday, comes months after a separate, more wide-ranging update by former Assemblywoman Debbie Ossiander failed to get traction, following what she described as an intense lobbying effort on the part of the city's permit owners.

Ossiander, who is from Chugiak, had originally tried to change the city code to make it easier for her constituents to get taxi service, but her efforts expanded after uncovering "a whole mess of frustrations from different sections of the community," she said.

In an interview Thursday, she said Traini's version was "better than nothing" and contained some "really good things," but had also left out the changes she'd tried to make to get more taxis to Eagle River and Chugiak.

Ossiander noted that a cab from her house to downtown Anchorage would cost $80 under the new rates. And she said she was also disappointed that Traini's update did not include any adjustments to help fix what bar owners describe as a dearth of taxis downtown in the early morning hours.

At Friday's work session, Traini acknowledged that the update wouldn't satisfy all of the industry's stakeholders.

"There's nothing we can do in here that will address everybody's needs. This is a start on that," he said. "We'll take amendments."

Several of the changes will affect the permit owners, like an increase in the annual permit fee to $1,980 from $1,425. The increase will help boost the city's code enforcement staffing from a single half-time officer to two full-time officers.

There are also new rules that prohibit cars with reconstructed titles to be used as taxis, as well as cars that use rear-wheel drive. A reconstructed title usually means the car was in a serious wreck.

Dan Coffey, an attorney for the city's permit owners, said he would have liked to have seen a smaller fee increase, but was happy to have negotiated it down to $1,980 from $2,500, which was where he said negotiations began.

Coffey said he thought Traini's changes were adequate, giving the proposal a letter grade of a B-plus.

"I don't find anything particularly wrong with it," he said.

But he added he would ask Traini to amend the draft to give permit owners without compliant taxis more time to buy them, since, as he put it, "it's not like we've had a lot of people killed in taxi crashes."

Other changes in the law include:

• Enhanced records checks for drivers, who will now be subjected to a fingerprint based, nationwide background check -- a change from the current system that searches by name, and is limited to Alaska records.

That comes after four drivers were charged with sexual assault over the past four years, most recently in June.

• Dispatch companies like Alaska Yellow Cab and Anchorage Checker Cab will be required to keep more precise records, and notify the city's enforcement officials whenever taxis fail to respond to callers.

It also requires the companies to call back people who have requested wheelchair-accessible cabs, to ensure that the cabs have shown up. Anchorage residents with disabilities have often said that their requests for service are ignored by dispatch companies and drivers.

• Drivers and passengers will be recorded by a video surveillance system and vehicles will be tracked by a GPS surveillance system.

"Cameras are a win-win for everybody," said Jacki Ransom, who owns two taxi permits with her husband. She said that insurance companies provide discounts when the cameras are installed in taxis.

Taxis will have to have a sign to notify passengers they are being recorded. The practice is common in other cities, including Seattle and Chicago.

"We've never had a complaint -- nobody has ever pushed back or suggested that it's a problem in any way," said Ed Yohnka, the director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "As long as you're telling the passenger, as long as when they get in they know they're being recorded. They obviously have the option to use or not use a cab."

Traini said he would hold another work session in early October, where the Assembly would take public testimony on the bill. It will then have an official hearing at the Assembly's meeting on Oct. 8, Traini said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.